A drive thru is a facility which originated in America, where people are able to use some of the facilities without leaving their vehicles. For the customer, it speeds up the purchasing time, while for the operator a drive thru can reduce costs by getting customers to pay their money and leave (meaning less seating needs to provided and the operator wouldn't have to pay VAT on the transaction pre pasty tax). In addition, a drive thru can provide resilience by providing some service even if the rest of the building has to close for some reason.
On major roads in the UK, McDonald's incorporated a drive thru as part of their standard, prefabricated, building design which became common in the 1990s. This included two sites which later became adopted as motorway services: Lymm and Leeming Bar.
The history of motorway services meant there wasn't much room for McDonald's to move in: the land had previously been leased in one go to an operator, who provided their own facilities. These operators were starting to experiment with their own drive thrus, as part of agreements with Wimpy and Burger King. Some of these were retro-fitted to existing buildings, while others were in new, supplementary buildings.
The motorway drive thrus didn't catch on. It's possible that operators were uneasy that they wanted customers to be getting out their cars to visit the shops which they operated, or that customers weren't interested because they had to get out to use the toilets anyway. Either way, most of these closed.
In 2008, two new A-road services opened with built-in KFC drive thrus.
The Return Of The Drive Thru
In 2012, Welcome Break brought the motorway drive thru back to the forefront by turning some old buildings into Starbucks drive thrus. These worked, and Welcome Break started developing stand-alone Starbucks coffee houses with a small amount of seating and a drive thru, meaning motorway services were starting to look like their A-road counterparts with a cluster of different buildings rather than one big one. In response, Moto, Roadchef and Applegreen have started developing Costa drive thrus, usually without any seating, while Euro Garages have stuck to Starbucks.
The key point with motorway drive thrus is that the aim is to attract people who would have otherwise just sat in their cars for a bit, or driven by. Where possible they are located before the car park to allow people to rest. Welcome Break have previously provided figures which they claim show that drive thru coffee shops don't increase the traffic flow, implying that they are catering for people who were already using the facilities but perhaps not making a purchase.
Since about 2015, there has been an explosion of drive thru coffee shops across in the country, both in retail parks and by main roads. Greggs is also one of the more unusual breakthrough drive thru brands.
New developments on both motorways and A-roads are now being planed with multiple drive thru units, and Roadchef have been looking at building stand-alone McDonald's drive thrus next to their sites. Meanwhile, Moto are looking to reopen some of their built-in drive thrus which had been closed for almost 20 years.
Despite the amount of attention paid to environmental and health issues these days, surprisingly little has been said about the impact of queues of vehicles waiting to use a drive thru, or about whether there are any health implications when encouraging diners to stay in their vehicle.
The phrase drive thru bin is used to describe litter bins with a large funnel, designed to encourage their use by making it easy to throw rubbish into them from a vehicle. The theory is that fast food litter is often dropped because people don't want to leave their vehicle.
The bins were brought to the UK by McDonald's, but received widespread publicity in 2017 after Highways England saw them installed at Lymm. These were very quickly knocked down by vehicles and the trial was left.