Who would have imagined the McDonald's drive-through would become such a beloved symbol of our times?

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:

  1. Patients get a doctor's order for testing, and make an appointment at one of the drive-up locations.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Smart lessons

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.