But it's true, for at least two reasons, both of which have to do with Covid-19, and ultimately saving lives.
- First, the only way McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and many other fast-food franchises can stay open is to shift to a drive-through-only model. It's not ideal, but it keeps part of our retail food system working while maximizing social distancing, and keeps employees on payrolls.
- Second, the drive-through model has become a critical part of our medical system. The rise of drive-through Covid-19 testing locations diversifies testing while limiting exposure of people with symptoms.
A smart business model
In fact, going to a drive-through-only model isn't quite the sacrifice for restaurants like McDonald's that you might imagine, at least according to a 2018 study by QSR magazine (and cited in a recent history of the drive-through business model, by Adam Chandler of Serious Eats.)
Even before the pandemic, drive-through sales accounted for about 70 percent of fast-food sales.
And while McDonald's didn't invent the drive-through, it helped make it ubiquitous, and it recently tripled down on it as a business model.
Last year, McDonald's spent $300 million to acquire Dynamic Yield, a technology company it planned to use to revolutionize the drive-through: with menus that could quickly adjust based on trends and inventory, purchase history, and even the weather.
Suddenly, that McDonald's business model bet seems like a really smart idea. As Chandler put it in his retrospective:
Today, the often-maligned restaurant drive-through window is being recast as both a critical amenity and a basic comfort, as states across the country impose new, crucial rules in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Adapted to health care
It's not just about fast food, though. Since widespread testing is one of the keys to getting the spread of Covid-19 under control, drive-through testing -- a sort of medical McDonald's model, if you will -- has emerged as a key tactic.
USA Today recently described the process at one such testing location in Virginia:
- Patients get a doctor's order for testing, and make an appointment at one of the drive-up locations.
- Upon arrival, they're reminded to keep their windows up at all times, and show their ID and doctor's note (and insurance card, if they have one) through the glass.
- They drive into a tent where a technician instructs them simply to crack the window a bit, then "tilt their head back, and the back of their throat is swabbed."
They drive off after a bare minimum of contact with anyone, and in theory get the test results within five to seven days.
If you're a business owner or entrepreneur (and even if you're in an industry far afield from McDonald's), I think the lessons here are clear:
First, think hard about business models in other industries that you might adapt to your own--especially in these dynamic times.
If I were still practicing law, for example, I might think about doing drive-through wills and simple estate planning. (My own lawyer told me requests for these are through the roof.)
Or at least offering drive-through notary public services.
And second, judge a business model by the data, not by the jokes.
Because in this case, the quip that feels most apt is one attributed to Yogi Berra: "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."
The drive-through model may be "often-maligned," as Chandler writes, but especially now, it seems to be the model preferred by a lot of fast-food customers, and increasingly, people who are in need of other goods and services.
People vote with their feet; or in this case, their wheels.