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McDonald's Bet Big On This Smart Idea. Now It's Saving Lives

Who would have imagined that the McDonald's drive-through would become such a beloved symbol of our times?

But it's true, for at least two reasons -- both of which have to do with Covid-19, and ultimately saving lives.

First, the only way that restaurants like McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and other fast-food franchises can stay open many places now, is to shift to an all-drive-through and all-delivery model. It's not ideal, but it keeps part of our retail food system working while maximizing social distancing, and keeps employees on payrolls.

Second, the drive-through model that fast-food franchises like McDonald's pioneered is now a critical part of our medical system. The rise of drive-through Covid-19 testing locations enable medical tests, while limiting exposure of people with symptoms to other patients and medical personnel.

A smart business model

In fact, going to a drive-through-only model in fast food isn't quite the sacrifice for restaurants like McDonald's that you might imagine, at least according to a 2018 study by QSR magazine (and cited in a recent history of the drive-through business model, by Adam Chandler of Serious Eats.)

Even before the pandemic, drive-through sales accounted for about 70 percent of fast food sales. And while McDonald's didn't invent the drive-through, it helped make it ubiquitous and recently tripled down on it as a business model.

Suddenly, that McDonald's business model bet seems like a really smart idea. As Chandler put it in his retrospective:

Today, the often-maligned restaurant drive-thru window is being recast as both a critical amenity and a basic comfort as states across the country impose new, crucial rules in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Adapted to health care

It's not just about fast food, though. Since widespread testing is one of the keys to getting the spread of Covid-19 under control, drive-through testing -- a sort of medical McDonald's model, if you will -- has emerged as a key tactic.

USA Today described the process at once such testing location in Virginia recently:

  1. Patients get a doctor's order for testing, and make an appointment at one of the drive-up locations.

  2. Upon arrival, they're reminded to keep their windows up at all times, and show their ID and doctor's note (and insurance card, if they have one), through the glass.

  3. They drive into a tent where a technician instructs them simply to crack the window a little bit, then "tilt their head back and the back of their throat is swabbed."

They drive off, after the bare minimum of contact with anyone, and in theory get the test results within five to seven days.

Smart lessons

I think the key lessons here, if you're a business owner or entrepreneur (and even if you're in an industry far afield from McDonald's), are clear:

First, think hard about business models in other industries that you might adapt to your own--especially in these dynamic times.

If I were still practicing law right now, for example, I might think about doing drive-through wills and simple estate planning. (My own lawyer told me requests for these are through the roof.)

Or, at least offering McDonald's-style, drive-through notary public services. And second, judge a business model by the data, not by the jokes.

Because in this case, the quip that feels most apt is one attributed to Yogi Berra: "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."  The drive-through model may be "often-maligned," as Chandler writes, but especially now, it also seems to be the model preferred by a large number of customers at McDonald's and other fast-food chains.

People vote with their feet; or in this case, their wheels.

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