Let’s Build Your Next Drive-Thru, The Right Way!

Whether you’re contemplating a renovation of an existing establishment or embarking on the construction of a brand-new one, the drive-thru concept has become a central topic of discussion among restaurant owners seeking innovative ways to adapt to evolving customer preferences and navigate government restrictions in today’s economic climate. The drive-thru has been a quintessential part of American culture since the 1940s, with its origins tracing back to a humble 100-square-foot burger shack in Baldwin Park, California, which eventually became the iconic In-N-Out Burger chain. Interestingly, it took McDonald’s more than two decades to embrace the drive-thru model after witnessing In-N-Out’s success. From their inception, drive-thru restaurants have consistently demonstrated their ability to boost profitability by efficiently handling high order volumes.

It’s worth noting that the Small Business Administration (SBA), a long-standing supporter of fast-food giants and chain restaurants, has historically provided them with accessible seed funding. In fact, as recently as 2014, nearly 50 percent of first-time franchises secured financing through SBA loans. In our recent discussions with SBA lenders, we’ve discovered a shift in their requirements for new construction projects—many now mandate the inclusion of a drive-thru for project financing. In the current business landscape, establishing a robust take-out strategy is essential for restaurant survival, and drive-thrus can play a pivotal role in these strategies. Let’s explore some of the most effective practices when considering the creation of a drive-thru.

Feasibility Study

If you are planning to add a drive-thru to an existing location or plan to build a brand-new, tailored drive-thru facility, it’s essential to enlist the services of a professional for a feasibility study. This study serves as a comprehensive analysis, shedding light on critical aspects such as traffic patterns and the potential impact of your new drive-thru on the surrounding traffic volume and flow. It’s important to note that in most U.S. cities, obtaining approval for a drive-thru without a thorough feasibility study is a challenging task, as local authorities are hesitant to greenlight such projects without a clear understanding of their traffic implications.

The permitting process also plays a major role in the development of your next drive-thru. Many cities require additional requirements, necessitating input and approval from the fire department due to increased window installations, altered traffic flow, and the proximity of idling vehicles to the building. In certain jurisdictions, specific laws govern the use of signage and dictate precise paint colors for curbs, further emphasizing the need for meticulous planning and adherence to local regulations.

Organized Layout

Once you’ve secured the initial approval for your new drive-thru venture, the next step is to plan the queue configuration. Similar to the importance of an organized kitchen in a restaurant, an orderly drive-thru layout is essential. It entails ensuring that vehicles have ample space for turns and strategically marking lanes to facilitate a seamless flow at the merging points, enhancing the customer experience. Given that drive-thrus often account for up to 70 percent of total sales in quick-serve restaurants, the overall layout and design carry huge significance.

Recent research from the Kellogg School of Management and the Columbia Graduate School of Business underscores the importance of minimizing drive-thru wait times. According to their findings, every 7-second reduction in wait time translates to a 1 percent increase in sales—a compelling reason to prioritize efficiency. Moreover, careful consideration should be given to window placement to avoid sun glare during daylight hours. This helps ensure optimal visibility from a safety standpoint.

Choosing the Proper Equipment 

Once you have decided to install or implement a drive-thru window, make sure you have selected all the correct equipment you will need. For example:

  • The Takeout Window – Opt for an extra-wide window at the drive-thru to enhance efficiency. This design allows two employees to simultaneously assist customers—one can handle payments while the other delivers the order swiftly.
  • Squawk Box – There’s nothing more frustrating for customers than struggling to place an order through a blown-out speaker with crackling sound, only to discover that their order is incorrect. Choose a high-quality speaker system, or even better, a digital menu display with a built-in speaker for easier installation and maintenance.
  • Menu Displays – Digital menu boards are becoming more popular for multiple reasons:
    • Visibility and clarity of the menu itself.
    • The ability to update menu items and pricing updates much easier.
  • Confirmation Boards – It is best to consider investing in order confirmation boards, this allows customers to receive visual assurance that you completely understood their order and makes it easier for them to modify it if they wish.
  • Lighting – Strategically positioned bright lighting along the drive-thru path and parking area is crucial. This eliminates dark spots, enhancing customer safety, security, and peace of mind.
  • Security Cameras – Placing cameras strategically throughout the premises enables employees to visually confirm the identity of the customers they are assisting, providing added peace of mind for both customers and staff

Consider Having Employees Outside to Take Orders

Positioning employees outside in the drive-thru is a practice that more and more restaurants are benefiting from. With today’s technology, you can provide employees tablets to take orders outside. For instance, this is something that Chick-Fil-A does, and it adds to their success. They call this system “face-to-face ordering,” which is why the majority of Chick-Fil-A restaurants serve well over 100 cars in the drive-thru line during peak hours.

Furthermore, the integration of mobile order processing and payments can substantially reduce wait times in drive-thru lanes. To enhance efficiency, it’s advisable to consider a separate drive-thru line and kiosk dedicated to mobile order pick-up.


Drive-thru restaurants are dominating the restaurant industry. Build-to-suit developments are considered the most sought after and universally beneficial project delivery method in the commercial real estate industry. This is where SCGWest comes in; we specialize in ground-up development and build-to-suits for restaurants. Our unique approach significantly reduces the upfront out-of-pocket costs for tenants while affording them substantial input into the design and construction process.

As a comprehensive build-to-suit developer, our dedicated teams for site selection, design, and construction leverage their collective expertise and proven processes to ensure the success of your next  project. If you’re considering designing and constructing a new drive-thru, don’t hesitate to reach out to us today. We’re eager to assist you in getting started promptly!

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