How The Starbucks Drive-Thru Has Evolved Over The Years

What's better than getting a delicious pumpkin spiced latte or secret menu frappuccino from Starbucks? Picking up your coffee without having to leave the comfort of your car. It seems that Starbucks customers agree, as Statista reported that its drive-thrus had an 89% overall experience satisfaction rate in 2020. And drive-thrus are advantageous for the brand; former CEO Kevin Johnson shared that drive-thru profits have only increased since the Covid pandemic, and in the second quarter of 2021, drive-thrus were responsible for over half of total sales (via QSR Magazine).

Unsurprisingly, Starbucks drive-thrus are showing no signs of slowing down. In August 2022, Insider reported that more than two-thirds of orders are now placed either through the Starbucks app, in the drive-thru, or for delivery. If you've ever driven up to a location and seen the shockingly long line of cars waiting for their coffee, you know this to be true. And in a 2022 earnings call, CEO Howard Schultz announced the chain was planning to add drive-thrus to 90% of new stores, according to Restaurant Dive.

But while Starbucks drive-thrus have been a roaring success in recent years, they weren't always so popular. Let's take a look at how these additions to our favorite coffee chain began and how far they've come.

Starbucks executives were initially skeptical about drive-thrus

It's only fitting that the first-ever Starbucks drive-thru was in a region where people are always in their cars: southern California. In 1994, the first Starbucks drive-thru opened and only served coffee and tea drinks, as this was long before Starbucks began selling food. Even though drive-thrus had been around in America since the 1920s, according to Love Food, Starbucks was initially hesitant to embrace them.

According to Convenience Store News, the chain was afraid drive-thrus would drive away customers who enjoyed the stores' calming music and comfortable seating. Starbucks' original mission was to give customers an escape from home and work, which it called the "third place" model, according to The Los Angeles Times. Executives were initially afraid drive-thrus would eliminate this whole concept. But once the company saw customers clamoring for additional drive-thrus, it was fully on board. By 2005, Starbucks had stores with drive-thrus in every state except for Vermont and Wyoming and even in countries like Japan (via Convenience Store News). 

Since then, the chain has constantly evaluated its drive-thru operations and attempted to streamline them. According to QSR Magazine, a cross-functional Starbucks team began defining customer zones, optimizing the drive-thru menus, and enhancing technology in 2010. These innovations and more have led to the booming success that Starbucks drive-thrus are today. Future plans include employees walking through drive-thru lines to take orders and drive-thru-only locations with multiple lanes (via Fox Business).