It’s no secret that drive-thrus have gotten slower in recent years.
As the the QSR 2018 drive-thru study reports, major quick-service restaurants (QSRs) like McDonald’s and Wendy’s see about 70 percent of their sales come from the drive-thru window. But the same study also reported that the drive-thru experience for customers has gotten slower over time, with an average speed-of-service time at 234 seconds in 2018, compared to 225 seconds the previous year and 190 seconds back in 2003.
A consumer doesn’t need numbers to tell them the drive-thru needs improvement: just go to one on a Tuesday morning during rush hour, where lines are long, orders are incorrect, and the mini-van in front of you just ordered four extra-large frappucinos.
Long lines and clunky experiences at the drive-thru were Dan McCann’s inspiration for starting 5thru. The company uses a combination of AI, license-plate technology, and scanners to speed up the process of ordering and paying and also offer a deeper level of personalization for customers.
As a technology, 5thru isn’t live at any restaurants yet, but over the phone this week, McCann told me it’s “coming soon” and walked me through how it will change the drive-thru experience for both users and restaurant chains.
When a user pulls up to the drive-thru, a camera (which typically already exists at most drive-thrus) scans their license plate, which is connected to a customer profile (users will be able to opt in). A user’s payment info and order history are already stored in 5thru’s system and can be automatically processed, so they need never fumble with a wallet or phone to pay.
Inside the restaurant, the 5thru system processes the order and immediately displays an upsell recommendation the worker can offer the customer then and there. “Would you like a blueberry muffin with your coffee,” for example. McCann said 5thru is currently forecasting a 9 percent increase in average ticket size thanks to this recommendations engine, and that the company can up that number as the technology rolls out to more restaurants.
To get those recommendations, the system factors in a number of elements, from a customer’s past orders to the weather in their location. The idea is to create recommendations that are more personalized than most of us are used to getting when we order food from QSRs. Or, in McCann’s words, “a recommendation we think will fit you.” For example, he doesn’t want the 5thru system to ever recommend burgers to vegetarians, or hot chili to Albuquerque, NM residents in the middle of a blazing-hot summer.
The obvious benefit for restaurants here is the increased revenue, whether that comes from upsell items or recapping revenue that’s normally lost in the traditional drive-thru. McCann reckons that, start to finish, the process of having to get out a credit card or phone and hand it over to pay adds about 28 to 30 seconds to each customer’s experience at the drive-thru. “ If you’re cutting down 30 seconds a car, you can get more cars through,” he says.
Interestingly, there are no apps involved with 5thru, as McCann doesn’t believe that technology is especially suitable for the drive-thru setting: “The problem in a lot of cases is that a lot of [drive-thru orders] are impulse cravings,” he says, adding that, “You’re not going to pull your car over and start pre-ordering” should the craving for a bacon cheeseburger hit.
Instead, 5thru wants to bring the order experience into your vehicle eventually. The company is currently at work with car manufacturers to add voice-order capability, so that getting that bacon cheeseburger becomes merely a matter of telling Siri to order it, then heading to the nearest Wendy’s to get your license plate scanned.
That’s still a work in progress, and McCann, for security reasons, wasn’t able to name specific auto manufacturers. Restaurant chains who will be rolling out 5thru are also under wraps, though he did tell me that “some of the top well-known chains” are on board.
It also remains to be seen if a critical mass of people will take that step of opting into 5thru’s system and thus hand over their license plate info. To be sure, we’ll see some paranoia around this, as it’s yet-another piece of personal information consumers are giving away in the name of fast service and more personalized service. 5thru will need to put extra emphasis on the security of its system once it rolls out.
5thru isn’t discussing a specific timeframe for when their tech will be in place in restaurants. But McCann believes it’s only a matter of time before this sort of hyper-fast and hyper-personalized experience becomes the norm. Just look at McDonald’s recent acquisition of menu-personalization startup Dynamic Yield and Dunkin’s use of separate drive-thru lanes for mobile-order customers. Couple things like that with a system like 5thru, and in five years we’ll probably be looking at a very different drive-thru experience.