Burger King, Popeyes drive-thrus getting a makeover for the coronavirus age

Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Hortons are getting new drive-thrus to boost sales in the coronavirus age.

Restaurant Brands International, which owns the three brands, said Tuesday that it is planning to modernize and speed up the drive-thru experience at over 10,000 restaurants in North America by the middle of 2022.

That includes the installation of over 40,000 digital menu screens, or four per drive-thru lane. The screens offer contactless payment methods to speed up cars' progression through the drive-thru, integrate loyalty programs to show customers items based on their rewards redemption history, and use predictive selling technology that suggest products based on weather, time of day and trending items. The screens also have improved tech that should help prevent outages.

Drive-thrus have become increasingly important to restaurant chains during the pandemic, when dining rooms have closed or are operating at reduced capacity because of restrictions and more customers are ordering delivery or taking meals to-go.

The new digital screens "will meaningfully enhance our drive-thru experience at a critical time and solidify a key point of differentiation for our brands," said Matthew Dunnigan, the company's chief financial officer, during a Tuesday call discussing the financial results.

Burger King and Tim Hortons could especially use a sales boost: Both brands have been struggling during the crisis.

In the three months that ended on September 30, sales at Burger King restaurants open at least a year fell 7%. At Tim Hortons, which has been hit by the sudden lack of a morning commute as many people work from home, sales at restaurants open at least a year dropped 12.5% for the quarter. Tim Hortons is trying to drive sales in the afternoon to improve the situation.

And rising Covid-19 cases in North America mean that unexpected dining-room closures aren't over. In early October, Tim Hortons restaurants in Ontario had to temporarily close dining rooms because of restrictions, CEO Jose Cil mentioned during Tuesday's call, making the environment in Canada "challenging."Cases are rising in the United States, as well.

Popeyes, on the other hand, has been doing well: Comparable sales grew 17.4% in the third quarter, thanks in large part to the success of the brand's popular chicken sandwich.

Total revenue fell about 8% to $1.3 billion in the third quarter.

Many chains were bolstering their drive-thru infrastructure even before the pandemic.

Burger King has been working on new restaurant designs for a few years. Last month, the chain unveiled two new restaurant designs with features like triple drive-thrus, burger pickup lockers and smaller dining rooms.

And last year, McDonald's acquired Dynamic Yield, an AI company, to help it design smart digital menu boards to help increase sales, and rolled the tech out throughout its drive-thrus.

Restaurant Brands has already started rolling out the new screens at roughly 1,500 US Burger King locations and 800 Tim Hortons locations in the United States and Canada.

In those locations, the new screens have contributed to higher overall sales and more spending per order, said Kobza, noting that "it's still early days."

It plans to start adding the screens to Popeyes locations later this year.

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