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The pandemic saved the fast food industry

Burger King and McDonald’s deliver low-contact, standardized food. Fine dining is taking notes.

By Kara Baskin

Consider the humble McDonald’s French fry, whose taste is universal as air. From Europe to Japan to Los Angeles, it’s the same: salty, mealy, limp with grease. This is by design. Fast food’s draw is standardization and recognizability. A Whopper is a Whopper is a Whopper.

That’s partly why, before COVID-19 descended, fast food was as square as a Wendy’s burger.

Imagewise, the industry may have reached its nadir in 2016, when McDonald’s confessed in a widely circulated memo that just one in five millennials had tried a Big Mac. Bear in mind, this was the heyday of the celebrity chef and experiential dining, when the trendiest food was performative, not convenient. The top restaurant in the United States, according to the James Beard Foundation, was Alinea, a Chicago temple of molecular gastronomy where customers enjoyed four-hour-long meals and capped off dessert with edible ballons, made of sugar and filled with helium.

Fast food, meanwhile, was a muckrakers’ dream, derided as nutritionally suspect (see: the movies Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me). And the premise of a drive-thru — once a nostalgic hallmark of post-war car culture — seemed outdated, stigmatized, and soulless. Cities like Minneapolis started banning new construction of fast food drive-thru windows, largely on aesthetic grounds.

But in pandemic times, fast food’s quaintly defining features — the low contact, the familiar menu items, the ability to feast in the comfort of your car — suddenly became assets. Fast food drive-thrus were a lifeline during the fiercest COVID-19 lockdowns; from April through June 2020, drive-thru business accounted for 42 percent of all restaurant business. And in July 2020, when more restaurants had opened for dine-in, drive-thru visits still increased by 13 percent over the previous year, according to NPD Group, a worldwide market research firm.

“There is a grudging cultural embrace of this model again,” says Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom. “People are understanding why it was popular in the first place.”

Even as COVID restrictions ebb, he predicts, the meal-on-the-go will have value — for urbanites who moved out to the suburbs; public transportation stalwarts driving cars again; and “people who are busy, who are working at odd hours and need to get something that they know is going to taste a certain way, at a certain price, in a very uncertain time.”

But that’s not the end of it. Out of pandemic-era necessity, touchless pickups, standardized menus, and other elements of the fast food experience have crept into other corners of the dining industry, changing the dynamics between customers and restaurants in the process. Now, industry experts predict that some trappings of fast food could become lasting habits — even for brands you’d never associate with a mass-produced fry.

For the past few decades, the only certainty about fast food seemed to be the fact that it wasn’t relevant anymore. With the advent of the Food Network and swashbuckling kitchen heroes like Anthony Bourdain, cooking had become a respectable — even aspirational — profession, and people behind the stove were as talked-about as the food they cooked. All of the buzz belonged to local sourcing, slow food, and bespoke ingredients — and chefs who relished telling you, eager customer, the provenance of every grain of rice and the childhood inspiration behind every recipe. In 2016, visits to fast food restaurants flatlined. QSR, an industry trade magazine, postulated that the decline reflected consumers’ evolving expectations for “freshness, quality, and health.”

“People are understanding why it was popular in the first place.”

Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom

Of course, once the pandemic hit, fast food was poised to capitalize for the very reasons it was once derided. “It’s familiar. It’s affordable. It’s quick. It’s something that doesn’t require a lot of in-person interaction,” Chandler says. Fast food’s clockwork efficiency even became a model for public health. In January 2021, the mayor of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, eager to make his city’s drive-thru vaccine clinics run more smoothly, consulted with the management of the local Chick-fil-A.

Those efficiencies, especially around the logistics of orders and pick-ups, have been increasingly borrowed by the fast-casual sector (restaurants like Chipotle or Shake Shack, with slightly higher price points, food prepared to order, and a pre-pandemic sit-down aesthetic). Chipotle recently launched drive-thru “Chipotlanes” for customers on the go; Pizza Hut established “Hut Lanes” for digital-order pickups. Shake Shack plans to open drive-thru lanes in 2022. Traditional fast food is also stepping up its no-contact game: Burger King’s “Restaurants of Tomorrow” designs include lockers for mobile orders, enhanced curbside pickup, drive-up areas sheltered by solar-powered canopies, and three-lane drive-thrus.

Now, “there are digital menu boards; customers punch in their own orders and don’t even talk to anyone,” says Lisa van Kesteren, CEO of SeeLevel HX, a business intelligence-gathering agency based in Atlanta. “Brands that were doing that before had a head start, but now, just a year into the pandemic, almost all have a version of an automated system.”

Even for restaurants without a chain’s presence or volume, the pandemic created a sudden need for takeout options — and for flexibility when the traditional business model couldn’t work. The result, a robust takeout system for foods that once were served only in-house, created new standards for what customers wanted and what restaurants were willing to deliver.

It started with the “ghost kitchen”— a restaurant without customers or waitstaff, which gave empty restaurants a new pandemic life. In some cases, restaurateurs used their own kitchens during lockdowns, preparing meals solely for takeout and delivery. In other cases, chefs or companies rented kitchen space from other restaurants, creating large volumes of takeout-only meals. And as dine-in resumed, ghost kitchens remained. In New York City, Roberta’s — the quintessential Brooklyn pizzeria — now also operates out of a commissary kitchen on the Lower East Side, offering Neapolitan pies on Caviar and DoorDash. Nathan’s Famous, the Coney Island hot dog institution, opened its 100th ghost kitchen since the pandemic began, with more to come.

Even celebrity chefs, whose currency was once charisma, got into the ghost kitchen business. Momofuku founder David Chang — whose rage-fueled orchestration of the dining room experience was legendary — now operates Fuku, fried chicken ghost kitchens that only offer delivery. In 33 states, you can get Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen burgers and wings, cooked a few miles away and delivered to your doorstep. Food Network personality Eric Greenspan and Planet Hollywood founder Robert Earl now operate Virtual Dining Concepts, a delivery-only restaurant brand that allows celebrities like Mariah Carey and Tyga to lend their names to cookies and chicken wings, available across middle America.

It has all been a telling shift for an industry where atmosphere and personality were almost as important as food. (The very name, “ghost kitchen,” implies a lack of ego or cult of personality.) But ghost kitchens have also allowed chefs to experiment with different cuisines and reach wider audiences — without the need to fill a dining room, take reservations, or explain a new dish to a wide-eyed server. And even when in-person dining returns more fully, Van Kesteren predicts, some of those new businesses will remain.

“Restaurants will be rethinking use of their dine-in space — people will start to come back, but it won’t be at the level it used to be,” she says. “What do they do with it? Create a carryout window only, or a second kitchen where they do delivery orders or double as ghost kitchens for multiple brands to use that real estate.”

As the business model changes, that could change the idea of what a restaurant experience needs to be — and what it takes to make one a success. “How communitarian and personal can takeout or delivery be?” wonders Paul Freedman, a food historian at Yale University.

Not very, but perhaps that’s what we need right now — reassuring prandial predictability after a year of upheaval. Long ago, fast food hit on the magic that can happen when sameness trumps creativity. And sometimes, customers might want exactly that, even from the highbrow places.

It’s like McDonald’s said back in the 1970s: We do it all for you.

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Kara Baskin is a writer based in Boston. She has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Bon Appétit, McSweeney's, Elle, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. 

Illustration by Jonathan Muroya


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