Fast-food dining rooms losing luster as companies focus on ‘digital guest experience’

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By Dan Sears

Fast-food dining rooms are changing as companies embrace new technology to automate tasks and speed up production.

But industry experts argue that they won’t necessarily disappear. 

Companies today are already experimenting with new restaurant formats that better adapt to consumer demands for fast and convenient service. 

For instance, Chick-fil-A is testing out two new concepts in Atlanta and New York that are geared toward mobile ordering. One concept is a pick-up-only service where customers order and pay online before picking up their food.

The other concept uses an elevated kitchen that sends orders to a four-lane mobile order drive-thru underneath. 

Taco Bell began experimenting with a similar format that also involved a four-lane drive-thru and elevated kitchen. 

Last summer, Panera tested out its first “Panera To Go” restaurant format, a digital-only bakery-cafe, as it continues to invest in “the digital guest experience” from in-cafe kiosks, rapid pick-up as well as drive-thru pick-up. 

Meanwhile, Wendy’s is automating its drive-thru ordering with generative artificial intelligence and also piloting robot delivery.


panera bread
Panera Bread tested out its first “Panera To Go” restaurant format, a digital-only bakery-cafe, as it continues to invest in “the digital guest experience” from in-cafe kiosks, rapid pick-up as well as drive-thru pick-up.
Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

CKE Restaurant Holdings, owner and operator of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, partnered with OpenCity’s AI proprietary voice-ordering platform at select restaurants in the U.S.  

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The pandemic isn’t what spurred the change, although it did accelerate it. 

“The convenience driver that moves consumers off-premises has become more and more important as the years have passed, and operators have been focused on this channel for its growth potential,” Hudson Riehle, the National Restaurant Association’s senior vice president of research, told FOX Business. 

“When the pandemic disrupted consumer dining habits, accelerating their comfort levels with technology and electronic payments, it made off-premises an even more important factor for restaurant growth,” Riehle added.

Today, over half of adults – about 66% – say they are more likely to order takeout from a restaurant than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered in-person dining, according to the National Restaurant Association. 

Consulting firm McKinsey & Company said a “digital revolution is changing the way business is done.” The firm even went as far as to say that “restaurant companies that are slow to adapt to these developments could be left behind.” 

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wendys
Wendy’s is automating its drive-thru ordering with generative artificial intelligence and also piloting robot delivery.
Getty Images/ Spencer Platt

However, Marbue Brown, a customer experience executive and founder of The Customer Obsession Advantage, argued that some dining spaces will remain relevant, depending on the type of food it serves and the experience the restaurant offers. 

Brown told FOX Business that Buffalo Wild Wings, a casual restaurant and sports bar chain, is a good example of that. 

“You’re going to have a shared experience watching sports [and] interacting with people. That dining room is serving a certain kind of purpose,” he noted. 

Similarly, Starbucks is often used as a spot where students come together to hand out and do homework together, he added. 

“In a lot of the fast-food scenarios these days, dining rooms are not serving the same kind of purpose,” as they once were, according to Brown. 


An empty McDonald's dining room.
An empty McDonald’s dining room.
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For instance, McDonald’s used to serve as a great place for play dates, since some used to have playgrounds attached to the dining space, Brown added. 

Although some dining spaces may slim down or take on a new layout, Brown doesn’t see them going away completely. Rather, he expects that there will be more of a hybrid model. 

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Amas Tenumah, founder of Better Xperience Group and former vice president of operations of Wonderful Brand, told FOX Business that “the dining room is not going anywhere.”  

Instead, don’t expect to have humans man them,” he said, adding that “our future is going to be more humans interacting with machines.”

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