Keep the Change: Quick Service Restaurant Trends with Real Staying Power

Christine Antonelli
Sep 24, 2020 12:08:00 PM

It's no secret that of all the industries impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants have been hit particularly hard. Restaurants across all categories have had to adapt to the new reality we all face. These changes have often been fluid due to quickly evolving government regulation, CDC guidelines, and changing consumer sentiment.

As a result, transformation is now a make-or-break proposition for quick service restaurants.

Though uncertainty around the long term implications of the pandemic on society remains high, many temporary measures adopted by restaurants may likely be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Change, accelerated

It's important to note that many of the systemic changes we'll discuss were underway before the pandemic. Some, such as the prevalence of delivery apps, takeout, and "heat and eat" meals, were touted as convenience-enhancers, technology-enabled features, or marketing gimmicks over the past few years. The pandemic accelerated the pace of change and led to rapidly increased adoption across the broader populace out of necessity.

However, as we continue to see in the restaurant industry, fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has also altered consumer behaviors to favor either paying online or using any off-premises options available.

Now, as restaurants reopen, businesses need to consider how technology can be used to accommodate the way customers prefer to purchase goods and services on site.

Evolving consumer preferences

A July 2020 study by AlixPartners indicated that diners now have strong preferences regarding the dining experience. Specifically, there is a newfound preference for takeout options over delivery because it balances a desire to get out of the house with a naturally lower exposure/contact experience. Further, this option is significantly less expensive than third-party delivery options and is viewed as more supportive of local small businesses.

In terms of in-restaurant dining, the study indicated that there would be an increased preference for outdoor seating, mask mandates, and limited-contact service from now on.

In general, these preferences are leading consumers to embrace a more limited array of dining options. Guests are more inclined to select from a small group of restaurants that they deem trustworthy and accessible. According to FSR Magazine, the features that increase this trust and accessibility include virtual waitlists, QR code menus, and contactless payment options.

Guests are more inclined to select from a small group of restaurants that they deem trustworthy and accessible.

Contactless payment options are especially interesting. The increase in the transaction speed is an even bigger benefit now for business, as many areas have restrictions on the number of customers allowed in a restaurant. While this technology is great, it is far from a silver bullet. Especially from a technology perspective, restaurants need to ensure that they reduce long lines and have an efficient process for a customer to get their food.

Case in point: the drive thru window

As consumer expectations evolve with the state of the pandemic and national sentiment, so will the innovations designed to accommodate the changes.

One key trend taking shape revolves around one of the industry’s cornerstones, the drive thru window. A staple of the industry for over 60 years -- they've become more popular in 2020, according to Fast Company.

According to one recent poll, 74% of Americans have visited a drive-through either the same amount or more than usual this year. Pretty notable, when you consider everything that has occurred.

This is a space to watch, because historically the concept of an efficient drive-through has been elusive to many. It will be interesting to how the concepts and footprints evolve, as chains experiment with more lanes and even eliminating in-store dining altogether.

According to one recent poll, 74% of Americans have visited a drive-through either the same amount or more than usual this year.

Innovations to come

Additional concepts continue to gain steam, including virtual kitchens, where existing restaurants offer a unique and tightly curated offering to delivery companies and so-called "ghost kitchens." These ghost kitchens are commercial kitchens where food is prepared for delivery-only restaurants.

Further, traditional restaurants may expand into offering additional "heat and eat" options or prepare-at-home meal kits. Some developments, such as carryout cocktails, will remain largely dependent on local ordinances and guidelines.

The overall message for restaurants is clear: the measures they've been forced to adopt in response to COVID-19 are not purely temporary. Restaurants shouldn't expect a rapid return to the way things were. These measures are, at least in part, here to stay for the foreseeable future. It will be incumbent upon operators to stay on top of these rapidly-evolving trends and adopt innovations that increase safety, expand availability, and improve overall efficiency to serve modern consumers' new needs.


  • The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the traditional restaurant model.
  • Virtual kitchens, ghost kitchens, and innovations in takeout are new trends that have emerged and continue to develop.
  • Some aspects of restaurants, like the dine-in option, will likely see more changes.
  • To provide the food services modern consumers expect, restaurateurs need to keep apprised of these trends and others as the market continues to evolve.

About the Author - Chris Antonelli

Picture of Christine Antonelli

As Solugenix VP of Customer Experience and Support Services, Chris Antonelli manages the delivery of customer support services and customer experience initiatives for clients in the retail and financial services industries. Chris leverages two decades of experience in leadership roles where she has guided best-in-class customer support service solutions to global brands like McDonald’s, BMW, Citibank, Sonic Drive-In, and Jiffy Lube. As an Executive Council member for Ellevate Network, Chris is dedicated to the professional development of women in the workforce and ardent supporter of remote workforce development.

Connect with Chris Antonelli on: LinkedIn

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