Last August, Dunkin’ opened its first “digital” location on Beacon Street in Boston. There are no cashiers, replaced by touchscreens and mobile ordering, and no seats or tables.
Dunkin’ is far from alone. Name a fast-food restaurant and the odds are the company has recently developed a branch without any restaurant at all. Chipotle’s first “Digital Kitchen,” which opened in upstate New York in 2020, has no dining room. A branch that opened last year in the Cleveland suburbs doesn’t even let customers inside the store. This summer, Taco Bell opened something it calls Taco Bell Defy, which is not a restaurant at all but a purple taco tollbooth powered by QR code readers and dumbwaiters that bring the food down from a second-story kitchen. The operation is, by most accounts, astoundingly efficient. Wingstop’s “restaurant of the future” doesn’t have seats or take cash.
What’s driving this trend? Partly savings on real estate and labor. But mostly it’s a response to consumer preference. Pushed by pandemic restrictions and pulled by the increasing ease of mobile transactions, customers have rushed into drive-thrus, delivery, and mobile ordering. Even with coronavirus fears in most Americans’ rear-view mirror, Chipotle’s in-restaurant sales now account for just a third of its business. At Panera, which opened its first to-go-only locations this summer, that figure is under 20 percent…
Like the parallel remote-work phenomenon, the rise of what McDonald’s calls the Three D’s—digital, drive-thru, and delivery—may reflect an ongoing social atomization as the shared spaces that emptied out during the pandemic are slow to fill back up, to the point that walk-up, dine-in customers like me are no longer the focus, and might even be a nuisance. Often lauded as a vital “third space” for seniors, teenagers, and families in communities that lack friendly public spaces, McDonald’s unveiled a concept store in 2020 that has no seating at all.
This kind of eating works in the United States largely because of the amount of driving Americans do. In commuting and other trips from place to place that are required for daily life, they want access to food on the go. The option of indoor dining might be nice for some – see the idea of third spaces above and the ways this can enhance public life – but much business via people who never leave their car.
If those who used to eat inside these restaurants cannot do this, where will they go instead? This could lead to an uptick in eating restaurant food at home. This is a different kind of experience, more private with the diner have much more control over lighting, screens, sound, and more. It is much harder to fix wrong orders or to get more food. The restaurant experience might be limited to only larger outlays of money and specific foods in particular locations.