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How consumers experience fast-casual dining is no longer about the fastest drive thru lane or slick modern interiors. Instead, it's about seamless digital and physical interfaces connecting customer and industry insights to craft hyper-personalized experiences that make them return customers. Sorry: Award-winning spicy chicken tenders don't make up for a bad digital interaction or a fiasco of a curbside pickup.

In the past two years, brands have seen intense shifts in consumer behaviors. It's a race to catch up and break even, but some brands have used that momentum to think big and forward.

They aren't just chasing the horizon; they are shooting for the moon.

Here are three quick-serve restaurant brands to watch in 2022 as they redefine the quality of their customer's experience and the mode in which they deliver that experience.

1. The "Shake Track" pivot set to revolutionize a fast-growing brand

It's a busy year for Shake Shack as they set to open the most stores in one year in their brand's history. Pre-pandemic over 85% of sales were walk-ins, and come 2020, the industry's fast pivot to omnichannel ordering garnered a response from the beloved brand (Source: 'Shake Shack's First Drive-Thru Reflects a New Era', QSR Magazine).

Shake Shack drive thru rendering

"Shake Track" centers on pickup shelves, windows, drive-thrus and curbside pickup. New builds favor freestanding spaces, with digital menu boards, two-lane ordering systems, and a separate pickup window. They even added a dedicated makeline to streamline drive-thru orders and decrease wait times.

With the introduction of their app and multi-channel delivery, in Q3, Shake Shack delivered 14 percent quarter-over-quarter to their bottom line with their digital channels and increased dine-in sales into the double digits.

While we have seen all the above before, and it's not new to the digital space; it is an excellent example of how pivoting to meet a customer in the moment and giving them options in their experience tailors better to their needs can drive the bottom line.

2. Dunkin's high-speed morning fuel cashier concept

The powerhouse that fuels many busy mornings just got faster. At a pilot store in California, customers can opt into Mastercard's Shop Anywhere platform through the Dunkin mobile app, which creates a unique QR code that gains the customer access to the store and helps track their items for purchase.

Dunkin' Donuts storefront

Customers simply grab their coffee and donuts and walk out. Like Amazon 'Go' stores, the store's computer 'vision' keeps track of all the items collected and sends a digital receipt upon exiting the store.

This grab-and-go concept isn't new, but it's fresh to QSR. Fewer customer and employee interactions have been a theme rolling into 2022 from others in the industry like Chipotle, but none have leaped to this truly contactless experience as Dunkin. Time will tell if consumers warm up to this cashier-less method as of June 2021 only 28% of American consumers have tried a fully automated store.

3. The friendly, fully automated drive-thru that knows you

The Golden Arches are to fast food as Kleenex is to tissue paper. McDonald's defined what current generations expected of quick-serve restaurants, and now they are again setting the bar for how we experience a fundamental aspect of to-go food.

McDonald's store architecture

The QSR drive thru space is becoming crowded, and the demand has driven wait times out of the range of 'fast'. 91% of respondents to a BlueDot survey reported visiting a drive-thru in the past month and that long wait times are still a deal-breaker. (Source: 'The State of What Feeds Us Vol III', Bluedot)

So, AI has arrived in 10 Chicago McD's locations, serving up an automated drive-thru experience. It reduces wait times, helps relieve the in-store workforce during rushes, uses purchase history to hyper-personalize the experience for customers by recommending new menu items and has a high accuracy rate. According to McDonald's, only 1 in 5 transactions requires an employee to intervene.

Adding AI isn't the only thing the burger giant wants to add to future stores, they're also looking at express lanes for digital orders and conveyor belts to move food to customers.

While AI may not be an accepted staple in consumers day to day yet, the speed to delivery of products could outmatch any consumer wariness of AI.

These top three aren't alone.

Starbucks made a massive pivot mid-last year to heavily support mobile order pick up through drive-thru, so much so they changed build and restoration plans for many of their locations to only cater to the mobile order customer.

Panera storefront

Likewise, Panera has created stunning concept stores with open layouts, easy separate door access for third-party delivery drivers, and a rapid pickup fast lane for drive-thru mobile order pick up.

The business commitment to centering customers' expectations and a plethora of flexible options on receiving and experiencing products is here to stay. The brands that learn to pivot faster, brilliantly position themselves to serve the future consumer in a matter of months rather than years.