Taco Bell’s new Defy restaurant is pure drive-thru. Taco Bell

Five hours into a long drive through New England last week, I needed coffee. I pulled up to a Dunkin’ in Gorham, New Hampshire, parked, and got out of the car. Mistake. In the donut-scented interior, I learned that this Dunkin’ wasn’t taking orders in the store—only at the drive-thru and via the app. Reluctantly, I downloaded Dunkin’, selected a large cold brew, tapped in my credit card number, and watched in silence as two workers prepared and placed the coffee on the largely obsolete counter.

Seven days later, I got an email—“Are Your Cravings Calling?”—that left me unsure if I’d signed up for DD or AA. I was part of the Dunkin’ digital universe now, which is right where the company, owned by Atlanta-based Inspire Brands, wants me. Certainly more than in the actual store. Last August, Dunkin’ opened its first “digital” location on Beacon Street in Boston. There are no cashiers, replaced by touchscreens and mobile ordering, and no seats or tables.

Dunkin’ is far from alone. Name a fast-food restaurant and the odds are the company has recently developed a branch without any restaurant at all. Chipotle’s first “Digital Kitchen,” which opened in upstate New York in 2020, has no dining room. A branch that opened last year in the Cleveland suburbs doesn’t even let customers inside the store.

This summer, Taco Bell opened something it calls Taco Bell Defy, which is not a restaurant at all but a purple taco tollbooth powered by QR code readers and dumbwaiters that bring the food down from a second-story kitchen. The operation is, by most accounts, astoundingly efficient. Wingstop’s “restaurant of the future” doesn’t have seats or take cash.

What’s driving this trend? Partly savings on real estate and labor. But mostly it’s a response to consumer preference. Pushed by pandemic restrictions and pulled by the increasing ease of mobile transactions, customers have rushed into drive-thrus, delivery, and mobile ordering. Even with coronavirus fears in most Americans’ rear-view mirror, Chipotle’s in-restaurant sales now account for just a third of its business. At Panera, which opened its first to-go-only locations this summer, that figure is under 20 percent.

“It’s a way to cater to changing customer-order behaviors,” explains Emma Beckett, an editor at Restaurant Dive, an industry publication. While smaller store footprints and radical new designs are mostly reserved for new locations, she says, the arms race is on to remodel older stores with drive-thru lanes. “Everyone wants double or triple drive-thrus, so those parcels are becoming competitive, because there are only so many corner lots that can accommodate that.”

Everything is moving in the direction of Checkers and Rally’s, two drive-thru chains that were early to this idea. Take Salad And Go, the nine-year-old budget salad chain that now has dozens of locations in Arizona and Texas. Salad And Go has no inside at all, nor does it usually bother with picnic benches or even parking spots, like Sonic. Founder Roushan Christofellis has said the stores’ “microfootprints” are the secret to their super-affordable salads. As a bonus, no public interior space means you don’t need to build customer parking.

Wherever Americans are eating, it isn’t inside fast-food joints. To meet this shift, some chains, like Wendy’s and Qdoba, have embraced “ghost kitchens,” unmapped, closed-door facilities where food for delivery might be prepared for a dozen different brands at once.

Increasingly, the logic behind ghost kitchens is finding its way into public-facing retail design too. Last year, I wrote about how the rise in digital ordering was messing up the fast-casual experience, as restaurant workers struggled under a workload that depended little on the number of customers in the store. The good news is they are working on solving the problem. The bad news is: I am the problem.

Like the parallel remote-work phenomenon, the rise of what McDonald’s calls the Three D’s—digital, drive-thru, and delivery—may reflect an ongoing social atomization as the shared spaces that emptied out during the pandemic are slow to fill back up, to the point that walk-up, dine-in customers like me are no longer the focus, and might even be a nuisance. Often lauded as a vital “third space” for seniors, teenagers, and families in communities that lack friendly public spaces, McDonald’s unveiled a concept store in 2020 that has no seating at all.

It does, however, have algorithms inside the My McDonald’s App. “Imagine what can happen once we start to know, ‘Oh, Brian’s coming to the restaurant,’ and what we can do,” McDonald’s digital engagement head Lucy Brady told Wired in 2020. It’s like a 21st-century version of the waitress asking if you’ll have the usual.

On the other hand, to-go orders might not be replacing meals with friends as much as they’re eating into grocery-store spending. In the 2010s, American restaurant spending surpassed grocery spending for the first time, a dramatic shift from the 1990s when U.S. consumers spent $3 at the grocery for every $2 at the restaurant. “Breakfast spending is the fastest-growing daypart,” one industry analyst observed, “and that’s the ultimate utility. No one is sitting down for breakfast.”

That’s probably what’s motivating coffee-centric chains, among which Panera isn’t the only one scrambling to scrap seating areas. As Jonathan Maze wrote this summer in Restaurant Business Online, “Dutch Bros, which went public last year, rocketed to become the third-largest coffee chain with a model that features no seating. The fifth largest is Scooters Coffee, which is also a drive-thru-only concept. The fourth largest, Minneapolis-based Caribou, is focusing all its attention on growing drive-thru-only locations.” The occasion for Maze’s piece was the first drive-thru-only Tim Horton’s.

Something similar is happening at Starbucks. Despite its roots as an urban gathering place whose comfy chairs, Wi-Fi, and bathrooms invite customers to linger, on-and-off closures related to COVID have helped accelerate a business shift toward mobile, delivery, and drive-thru, which now make up almost three quarters of the brand’s U.S. revenue. And that’s just fine with Starbucks brass: Those customers make bigger purchases than the ones who walk in and order at the counter.

Starbucks opened its first “Starbucks Pickup” store in 2019, in Manhattan, and the model has since expanded to cities across the country. “These stores center on convenience and illustrate one way we can meet evolving customer behaviors in dense, urban locations,” a spokesperson says. As for Starbucks’ role as social infrastructure, the company has said it is “creating the digital third space.” “We plan to create a series of branded NFT collections, the ownership of which initiates community membership, and allows for access to exclusive experiences and perks,” chief marketing officer Brady Brewer wrote in May. Your Viennese coffee house could never.

You can see the zeitgeist in the rise of another coffee chain, Blank Street, whose New York locations rewards mobile pre-orders and often eschew seating altogether in favor of tiny, low-rent retail footprints. Most don’t have bathrooms, but then Howard Schultz has said Starbucks may reverse its own open-bathroom policy, citing problematic customer behavior. After closing a store in Philadelphia due to “safety” issues, Starbucks’ new Center City location has neither seating nor restrooms.

Perhaps we shouldn’t take these seatless concept stores too seriously. After all, they represent only a tiny experiment compared to the nation’s tens of thousands of existing fast-food restaurants, which, the Dunkin’ in Gorham, New Hampshire excepted, continue to offer old-fashioned thrills such as ordering with a human cashier and sitting at a table to eat. And let’s be honest, fast food’s appeal has always been the food—not the human connection and certainly not the ambiance.

“Pre-pandemic, about 50 percent of food was consumed on premise and 50 percent was drive-thru and delivery,” said Mark Landini, a retail designer who has worked with McDonald’s and other brands. “Because of the pandemic, that’s now changed to 20-80.” Landini specializes in eye-catching designs, and he suggested that further streamlining the fast-food experience might not be good for workers or, in the long run, brands.

(Or, obviously, his firm.) “I think ghost kitchens are a big mistake,” he said. “You’re effectively putting your business in someone else’s hands and the less a brand can manifest its personality, the less you’ll experience it emotionally. If you’re going to reduce that physical interaction for operational economics, or to reach a broader audience, the long-term effect is your product becomes a commodity on someone else’s shelf.”

Then again, the futuristic Taco Bell Defy and its ilk—as well as these companies’ earnings reports—show us where Americans are going, or more precisely, how. It’s not just mobile apps that are making these changes attractive, but an older technology that also promised both freedom and a kind of anti-social isolation: the automobile. The pandemic-fueled rise of the drive-thru just isn’t going away. Maybe it’s because remote work has pushed fast-food spending into suburban, car-dependent locations.

Maybe it’s because sitting down at Chipotle only seemed like a good idea relative to returning to the office, but nothing beats the kitchen table. Maybe it’s because there are more fun things to do at home, online, than ever before. One way or another, vehicle miles traveled are back to where they were in 2020, even though many white-collar workers aren’t in the office five days a week. They’re still going to the drive-thru, though.