It does not seem the coronavirus will be leaving us soon, although we have seen great progress recently for developing a vaccine. In recent weeks, many places have reported a surge of new COVID-19 cases. Some even resumed lockdowns and mask mandates, forcing restaurants to shut down indoor dining services again.

As a short-term remedy, restaurants immediately shifted their offerings to curbside pickup and delivery services. Meanwhile, restaurants are testing new concepts to embrace the contactless self-service trend for the future. Here are some examples.

Chipotle opened its first digital-only restaurant

The new prototype, known as the Chipotle Digital Kitchen, debuted in Highland Falls, New York, earlier this month. Different from the traditional Chipotle restaurant, the Chipotle Digital Kitchen features:

  • A lobby designated for pickup services through off-premise orders.
  • A see-through kitchen, allowing customers to see, smell, and hear what is going on behind the glass.
  • Businesses from regular and large catering orders through the restaurant’s website, app, and third-party delivery partners.

Chipotle expects that digital sales will remain a key driver of its business. The restaurant chain plans to roll out more digital kitchens in high-density, urban locations with large sales volumes through digital orders.

Burger King’s new stores will have multiple food collection points

Burger King plans to roll out new restaurants as early as next year in Miami, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The restaurant chain called it “the restaurant of tomorrow,” where:

  • Multiple ordering and delivery points are available, including drive-in, drive-thru, curbside pickup, and outdoor dining.
  • Because the kitchen is located on the second floor of the restaurant, conveyor belts will be used to deliver food to the cars.
  • Customers can place an order as they park their cars in the drive-in location through the mobile app by scanning the QR code at the spot. Staff will deliver the food to the parking spot.
  • Two to three drive-thru lanes are built-in, with a designated motorcycle lane in selected locations.
  • Customers can pick up the pre-orders through the mobile app either in the dedicated parking spots for curbside delivery or the food lockers located in the front.
  • The restaurant has a separate area for take-out orders by walk-up customers on foot or bike.
  • Both outdoor and indoor dining areas are still available.

The typical new store is about 60% smaller than the current ones. In a more urban setting, the new store will heavily focus on collection options.

Taco Bell’s new stores will have two drive-thru lanes

Taco Bell plans to open two company-owned stores with a new “Go Mobile” design in the first quarter of 2021. The new design includes:

  • Two drive-thru lanes, one of which is reserved for pickup orders through its mobile app.
  • Indoor pickup shelves.
  • Designated parking spots for curbside pickups.
  • More technology in the kitchen to speed up the process.

The size of the dining room in Taco Bell’s new stores will vary based on locations. The restaurant chain will work with the franchisees to update the existing stores.

McDonald’s wants to make drive-thru even faster

The fast-food giant seems to be playing a catch-up game. In the past few years, McDonald’s has already sped up the drive-thru line by 30 seconds, partially due to a simpler menu. Nevertheless, consumers still spend an average of 349 seconds in McDonald’s drive-thru lanes in 2020, slower than Burger King, Taco Bell, and KFC. Now, McDonald’s is testing:

  • Express lines for customers picking up mobile orders.
  • Dedicated pickup spots.
  • Automatic ordering.
  • Digital menu boards that are supported by AI, which can make recommendations based on such factors as the weather and how busy the kitchen is.
  • New stores with limited or no seating areas but with a focus on drive-thru, pickup, and delivery.

Are restaurants getting rid of the dining room for good?

The pandemic has increased demand for contactless self-service in businesses like restaurants, hotels, and airlines. Besides the shifting focus on drive-thru, mobile order, pickup, and delivery services, it indeed appears that quick-service and fast-food restaurants are shrinking the size of the dining room.

Will other types of restaurants, such as quick-casual or even fine-dining restaurants, follow the same trend? Also, will restaurants with smaller or no dining rooms stay after the pandemic?

I believe the answers depend on if one believes COVID-19 will forever change the way people eat in a restaurant or the purpose of going out. So, are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the dining room’s future in restaurants?