Long John Silver’s, that bastion of quick-service seafood, made a bold claim today by announcing their intent to “install the most technologically advanced digital drive-thru platforms in the restaurant industry.”

Over the next two years, about 400 Long John Silver’s flagship units will be revamped to include three high-def screens, digital audio, and an automated ordering system powered by technology from Allure, who makes visual communication and retail transaction platforms. As of now, these revamped drive-thrus are in 86 of Long John Silver’s stores.

Digital menu boards may not be the most exciting news on the block, but Long John Silver’s also noted in the press release that they were merely “laying groundwork for a fully automated drive-thru in the future.” No mention of robots yet, but you never know.

More importantly, this recent move puts them a growing list of quick-service chains revamping their drive-thru strategies in a bid to compete both with each other and with the nation’s current craze for delivery services.

So are Long John Silver’s efforts to (sort of) reinvent its drive-thru a case of too little, too late?

The short answer is no. But the company will have to hit the figurative gas pedal if it wants to keep up; they’re hardly alone when it comes to adopting tech to improve wait times, order accuracy, and other factors of drive-thru service. In fact, QSR’s 2017 Drive-Thru Performance Study noted that survey participants cited “technology” as the most important factor for improving drive-thru service, as well as the “one innovation that is going to change the future of drive-thru.”

The study doesn’t mention what particular aspect of technology will be the gamechanger, everyone is trying out different tactics.

At Subway, you can order a meal at the drive-thru from a touchscreen kiosk; if a user scans their phone on the screen, the system can identify past orders and also accept payments. Right now there are only 200 Subway locations with these kiosks, though they’re reportedly very effective. Rob Woodward, who operates Subways in Loveland, CO and Cheyenne, WY, said the 15 percent jump in sales was thanks to the kiosks installed those locations.

Starbucks, meanwhile, announced earlier this year that 80 percent of all new cafes will have drive-thrus. They’ve added interesting elements in the past to drive-thru, like putting baristas’ faces on outside video screens, which the company did in 2015. But Starbucks currently lags behind Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Panera, and others in terms of how long customers wait in the drive-thru lane. They’ll have to address this in order to stay competitive, which is part of the reason for the aggressive push to add more drive-thrus to stores.

Mobile-payment capabilities, a category in which Starbucks is a leader, could help. But others have mobile platforms as well, notably McDonald’s, who added mobile payment capabilities to drive-thru orders last year. Dunkin’ Donuts made a similar move earlier in 2018, and even gave customers at the Quincy, MA “store of the future” who used mobile payment their own drive-thru lane. Chick-fil-A has also invested in the multiple-lane concept to increase capacity and speed up order times.

Looked at collectively, all these developments seem to promise a brighter, faster future for drive-thrus. But can the category as a whole stand up to the delivery craze? After all, these same restaurants who are adjusting their drive-thrus are also partnering with third-party delivery services, and food delivery as a category is projected to grow 12 percent every year for the next five years.

I expect convenience will be the most important element at play here. Drive-thrus aren’t going to disappear on us, but restaurants need to ensure — through speed, ease of use, and accuracy — that the tech-centric solutions they’re offering make the experience as convenient for the customer as delivery does. Which means we’ll see more of things like touchscreen kiosks, mobile payments, and mobile ordering in the near future. And once we can add self-driving cars to that list, the drive-thru of the future will have truly arrived.

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