CHICAGO – Consumers made more than 12 billion visits to fast food drive-thru restaurant windows in 2011, proving that the drive-thru continues to meet the needs of time-strapped diners, according to The NPD Group, a Chicago-based market research company.

Carry-out represents the bulk of visits in the total quick service/fast food restaurant segment, according to NPD, but consumers prefer the drive-thru when ordering at hamburger, Mexican and chicken fast food restaurants. Drive-thru represents 57 percent of visits at fast food hamburger restaurants, compared to 17 percent for carry-out and 27 percent eating on-premise. Drive-thru at quick service Mexican restaurants represents 40 percent of visits compared to 26 percent carry-out and 34 percent on premise. Drive-thru represents 38 percent of visits at chicken fast food restaurants, compared to 36 percent for carry-out and 25 percent on-premise.

“Drive-thru customers’ expectations are straightforward – take down my order accurately and give me my food fast,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD. “To address consumer needs by having a drive-thru operation requires ample real estate and a complex mix of technology, logistics, and time management principles. It is really a very well-orchestrated dance.”

According to NPD, growth in drive-thru visits mirrors the growth of portable foods and beverages that can be eaten in the car, such as breakfast sandwiches and sandwich wraps. In addition to portability, packaging of these foods is a key characteristic of the types of foods and beverages offered at the drive thru, NPD said.

“In addition to offering speed and convenience to customers, the drive-thru operation is important to fast food restaurants’ bottom line, which is why fast casual and other quick service categories are planning drive-thrus,” Riggs said. “A successful drive-thru operation translates to higher customer satisfaction, repeat business, and more profit."