How the pandemic changed fast food payments: walk-up lanes, solar panels and more

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Burger King envisions a future in which the only thing its patrons will touch is their actual food, a redesign acknowledging 2020’s emergency workarounds have permanently shifted how people engage businesses and gained habits that go beyond their fear of spreading germs.

Early next year, the fast food chain will deploy new restaurant designs that are much smaller, and use technology to minimize interaction between staff and consumers. This strategy, which assumes most people are buying their food to go, is a harbinger of what quick serve chains will look like in the coming years — with an emphasis on mobile engagement instead of cash or payment cards.

Called “Burger King Your Way” the designs build stores that have 60% less square footage than an average Burger King location, which is 4,000 square feet. There will be three drive through lanes — with one set aside for gig economy deliveries — and a walk up window for takeout orders. It also assumes some drivers will order and eat in their cars, so there will be solar-powered canopies covering the outdoor eating areas. The panels are designed to produce energy at the restaurants, something Burger King has done in markets such as Germany, where it has also deployed wind turbines.

QR codes are at the center of the experience, with consumers scanning codes to place mobile orders, or using their devices to order ahead. There’s also an indoor dining area that sits above the drive through lanes. At each serving point, there are conveyor belts to automatically deliver food to consumers in their cars, ensuring a full contactless experience. Restaurant Brands International, which operates Burger King, will open the initial locations in Latin American, the Caribbean and Miami, Burger King’s headquarter city.

Restaurant Brands, which unveiled the new design earlier in September, did not make an executive available for comment. In the materials accompanying the new design, the company said it took into consideration how consumer behaviors are changing and how customers will want to interact with restaurants in the future.

Burger King's new design lets people pick up and pay for food with minimal human contact.

Burger King’s not alone, as Taco Bell, Starbucks and numerous other chains are changing store designs to accommodate consumer usage shifts. Remote ordering has surged during the pandemic, with a 43% increase in drive-through usage between April and August, reports location-based technology company Blue Dot’s “State of What Feeds Us” study.

Taco Bell, which is operated by Yum Brands, in late August released its new store design for early 2021 rollouts. Like Burger King, Taco Bell dramatically cuts the footprint from about 2,500 for an average location to 1,325 square feet. The mobile-heavy experience includes multiple drive through lanes with priority for mobile orders, and “bellhops” or concierge staff that are accessible via tablet order and payment at store locations. Taco Bell would not comment for this story, but it is positioning the design as a way for consumers to choose among different pick-up and payment experiences.

“It’s consumers who are creating the pressure here more than the chains pressuring each other,” said Ginger Schmeltzer, a senior analyst at Aite Group. “Even the small mom and pop stores are putting order ahead into their apps.”

The mix of in-person to digital engagement has reversed, Schmeltzer said, adding about 20% of restaurant business was “external” or outside of the restaurant before the pandemic, and now it’s more than half.

“Some of this will shift back to when we come out of this, but consumers will still want the convenience of digital,” Schmeltzer said. “So it’s going to be a challenge for businesses to maintain the right mix.”

Starbucks plans to close about 400 of its traditional stores over the next year. It will redesign other stores and showcase its Pickup store, a strategy that fits with the trend toward smaller quick serve locations that accommodate mobile order, pay and rely less on people congregating in stores.

Starbucks also changed its incentive marketing to support more payment options. In an email, a Starbucks spokesperson said the changes are due to a retail environment that has shifted because of the pandemic, accelerating existing trends toward personalized experiences through digital channels. The chain has seen usage of mobile ordering in the past year increase to 22% of total transactions, up 6 percentage points from 2019.

Other chains, including 7-Eleven, are also emphasizing mobile and online ordering through store layout and incentive marketing.

The trends owe more to how consumers are using digital to solve problems more than a direct push to mobile or digital payments, said Krista Tedder, head of payments for Javelin Strategy & Research.

Javelin found “buy online, pick up in store” increased to 42% in May 2020 from 27% in 2019, speaking to a desire to avoid being in the store. While that applies more to supermarket usage, the concept is the same as Burger King and Taco Bell — the innovations cater to people who don’t want to be in the store, or who want the in-store experience to be different.

“It has been proven that a pandemic crisis won’t automatically increase mobile payments or use of technology for checkout. What we see are solutions that solve problems — not shopping in a physical location, getting groceries, and food delivery — are what increases in services,” Tedder said.

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Coronavirus Retailers Mobile payments Digital payments Gig economy