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Mickey D's going 100% drive thru.

The end of McDonald's self-serve soda signals a drive-thru-only future

McDonald's wants to shrink its dining spaces, build more high-tech drive-thru kiosks, and introduce a small-format store called CosMc's

By Ananya Bhattacharya, Quartz Media

Sept 13, 2023

Within the decade, McDonald’s customers will no longer be able to fill and refill their own drinks at its restaurants.

The Chicago-based fast-food chain will do away with self-serve soda machines across the US by 2032. Several Illinois locations have already moved their machines behind the counter, where the staff serves the beverages, according to The State Journal-Register.

The change is courtesy a shift in consumer behavior in the post-pandemic world. Fewer people are dining in at McDonald’s outlets. Most customers prefer to drive through and pick up their orders. So McDonald’s is shrinking its dining rooms and reducing drive-thru times to make room for more customers and more orders.

Other chains, witnessing the same kind of shift in their business, are enhancing their drive-thru experience or partnering with food delivery apps. Chipotle is pursuing more locations for its Carside pick-up points, while Domino’s signed a deal with Uber Eats to push its deliveries.

One big number: Most McDonald’s customers drive-thru

70%: The share of the chain’s US business that drive-thru accounted for, as of November 2022

An non-exhaustive timeline of the McDonald’s drive-thru evolution

January 1975: McDonalds opens its first drive-thru restaurant with the old-school menu board, a speaker, and a sliding window, in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The motivation was to serve soldiers located at Fort Huachuca Army Base, who could not enter the restaurant because they were bound by rule to stay in their vehicles while wearing fatigues when off base.

May 2018: McDonald’s acquires a “decision engine” called Dynamic Yield for $300 million. Developed by an Israeli startup, the tech can adjust a digital drive-thru menu based on factors like time of day, weather, drive-thru times, regional menu item popularity, and more. McDonald’s claims to have rolled out this product recommendation engine in 12,000 kiosks within the first six months.

September 2019: McDonald’s acquires enterprise voice assistant service Apprente, with plans to supplant some human workers with the robot server for “faster, simpler and more accurate order taking.”

October 2019: Some US locations test recognition tech to scan license plates to recognize previous customers, so that McDonald’s can predict their orders and make AI-based recommendations.

December 2022: In Fort Worth, Texas, McDonald’s starts testing a separate “Order Ahead” drive-thru lane, where customers who place their order in advance through an app can skip the traditional lane and receive their orders via a food and beverage conveyor.

Charted: McDonald’s drive-thru is speedy

One more thing: McDonald’s dining rooms are shrinking

In July, McDonald’s announced a new small-format location called “CosMc’s,” which is mostly a kitchen with a bare-bones dining area. Although the company didn’t share too many details, it seems to follow the “ghost kitchen” model, focused on takeaway and delivery

CosMc’s, which gets its name from a McDonaldland mascot from the late 1980s and early 1990s—an alien from outer space who craves McDonald’s food—will start testing in limited regions next year.

“A big reason that we can now look at [small formats] is because of the growth that’s happened with the digital and delivery where you don’t necessarily need the big dining rooms that you needed in our traditional restaurants,” Chris Kempczinski, the CEO of McDonald’s, said during a July earnings call. “So you’re now able to look at real estate sites that previously would have been sort of off limits to us those become opportunities.”

“Ghost kitchens,” or cooking facilities with no dine-in or customer facing areas, is poised to be a $1 trillion market by 2030, according to the research firm Euromonitor.

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