How Much Does a Drive-thru Cost?

How much does a drive-thru cost?

 

The short answer is: “It depends,” but here is a comprehensive overview of what you should expect when you are getting proposals.

As you consider purchasing a drive-thru, this pricing guide will help you develop a budget and be ready for all the steps, and plan for ownership costs.

Costs of Drive-Thru Menu Boards: A Couple Things to Consider

Salespeople will tell you that every project is different, but here are some of the key things to consider:

  1. Menu board alone
  2. Add-ons to the board or drive-thru lane
  3. Installation cost (covered in a future article)
  4. Graphic design cost (covered in a future article)
  5. Life-time cost of ownership (covered in a future article)
  1. The menu boards.

There are three types of drive-thru menu boards: static, digital, and hybrid. Let’s take a look at each to learn more.

Static drive-thru menu boards

At the moment, this is the most common type of drive-thru menu board because, for the first 50 years or so of drive-thrus, this was all there was. Typically, the board consists of a metal enclosure and printed graphics. On average, a static drive-thru board will cost between around $3,000 and $8,000 depending on the size of the board, the type of structure, and the graphics production.

The price is mostly determined by the number of doors it has – usually 1-5. The doors also vary in size, typically from 18 inches to 27 inches wide. Also, within each individual door, there may be dividers, so a single door may have up to 3 different individual graphic panels.

The cost will also be influenced by the construction of the enclosure.

    • The type of metal used, and the construction will influence the cost. Extruded aluminum frames are great because they don’t rust. 
    • How is the sign illuminated? Some doors are backlit – these are sometimes called light boxes – meaning the light comes from behind translucent graphic panels. If the boards are not backlit, some type of external lighting will be needed for visibility at night.

Here are some additional questions you should ask:

    • Can the board be painted in my brand colors? Custom colors will cost more.
    • Is it wet painted or powder coated with a zinc primer to prevent rust?
    • Are the printed graphics included in the price of the frame?
    • Do you have graphic designers on staff who can create a menu design or enhance the one I already have?
    • What is the estimated life expectancy of the enclosure?
    • Will the color of the enclosure or the graphics fade over time?
    • Is the wind load rating, and how does that compare to the requirements from your zip code?
    • If illuminated, is the menu board UL-rated? This is required for permitting/inspection approval in most municipalities.

Digital drive-thru menu boards

Digital drive-thru boards are increasing in popularity, and restaurants from single units to major chains are moving to this option. The most basic system includes an enclosure and 1-3 digital screens. A digital drive-thru menu board can cost between $5,000 and $25,000. This seems like a huge range, and there are many more variables that can affect the price. The biggest factor is the number and size of screens.

Digital menu boards include a metal enclosure, which could be either a closed case or structure similar to a picture frame that holds the screens but offers little protection from the elements. Depending on the screen specifications, the enclosure may have to provide some protection against weather and theft while also having a reliable way to vent the heat produced by the screens.

The industry standard for drive-thru screens is 55”. They are not “off the shelf” TVs that you can get at a big box store. They are outdoor rated, meaning they can handle the elements - blazing sun, below-zero temperatures, dust, and precipitation. They must be able to handle extended uptime. There is a whole rating system for outdoor digital screens. Click here to learn more.

There are several more items that add to the stripped-down cost of just the frame and screens. Those items include:

    • HDMI cables. As with any digital screen, somehow, the content must be piped to it. The length of the cables depends on where the board is installed and where the content source is.
    • Screen warranty. Let’s face it, screens can fail, so a warranty is a necessary evil. Warranties usually run for 3-5 years. They range in scope from a “white glove,” where the manufacturer handles everything, and you have very little downtime, to basic, where you have to pull the screen down yourself, pack it up, ship it back and wait for the manufacturer to send a replacement.
    • Media player. This is the computer that makes the screens display the content you want. It can be included within the screen (this is known as SOC or system on chip), or it may be an external player.
    • The software includes several items
      • Content management software controls what content is playing. This varies depending on the number of screens.
      • Content management software hosting and maintenance. This varies depending on the number of screens.
      • Monitoring software that allows the screen manufacturer and vendor to troubleshoot remotely.
      • Order confirmation software that integrates with the POS.
      • 24/7 technical support.

Here are some questions you should ask:

    • Can the frame of the menu board be painted in my brand colors?
    • Do you have graphic designers on staff who can create a menu design or enhance the one I already have?
    • Do you offer content management services?
    • Does the board require an internet connection?
    • What does my IT department need to know to make this work?
    • What is the life expectancy of the screens?
    • Is the system UL listed?
    • Will the color of the enclosure or the graphics fade over time?
    • Is the wind load rating of the enclosure?

 

Hybrid drive-thru menu boards

A hybrid menu board is a combination of static and digital in the same enclosure. The benefit of a hybrid is that you get the dynamic capability of the digital screens while enjoying the lower cost of printed graphics in some of the panels/doors. The cost will vary greatly depending on the number of digital screens. The cost of a hybrid menu board will cost between around $3,000 and $25,000

See the additional cost adders in the static and digital options above. All of those apply to hybrid boards.

In addition to the above questions, here are some questions you should ask:

    • What combinations of static and digital are available?
    • Can you upgrade static to digital in the field?

 

  1. Add-ons

When adding a drive-thru to your business, you must consider more than just the menu board. Some other features that you may want to consider include:

    • Directional signs
    • Clearance bars
    • Preview/Presell boards
    • Canopies
    • Communication systems
    • Additional branding signage/Promo/LTO signs
    • Order confirmation systems

The directional sign is what points guests to your drive-thru. They can be illuminated, which will cost a bit more because you must run electricity to where they are installed. They can also have graphics printed in your brand colors. Many operators have signs that point to their drive-thru lane and then thank them as they are leaving and point them to the exit. They will run between $500-$800, not including installation.

The clearance bar is a great piece of hardware to include because it protects your building from vehicle damage if you have an overhang at the pick-up window. They can be a single bar (looks like an upside-down L) or a double bar (looks like a T). They are usually 8.5’ or 9’, depending on whether they are installed on the curb. Many restaurants choose to use the bar for printed welcome messages or height indications, and sometimes they are painted in custom brand colors. Another handy feature is a helix, which allows the bar to swivel out of the way when impacted by a vehicle. Clearance bars will run between $1000 - $4000.

A presell or preview board is an additional, usually smaller menu board placed just after the entrance to the drive-thru lane. The reason to install a preview board is to give your guests a sneak peek at your menu while they are waiting in line. There are two main benefits of adding one. First, you can use them to promote your highest-margin items and promos. Second, they speed up the line. You don’t have to wait for guests to review the menu for the first time when they get to the ordering station. Preview boards are usually one or two doors or panels and can be digital or static. Refer to the above section on menu boards for an idea of the cost.

The canopy is placed at the ordering point and is useful to shield the guest from the weather and therefore improve the ordering experience. In addition, they can function as a clearance bar. There are many styles of canopy – flat-top, curved-top, and offset, or maybe a custom design for your brand standards. Some have lights. They can house the speaker and microphone (see below). Because they are so different, prices can range from $3,500-$15,000

Communication systems include the speaker, the headset, and mics used by the restaurant team, and the timing loop. The speaker and microphone enclosure may be a set of metal boxes attached to the menu board or canopy pole, or it may be a stand-alone post. A speaker/mic post should run between $400-$700, while boxes mounted to the canopy or menu board will be less. The headset package consists of headsets and charging stations. The cost will vary greatly depending on how many headsets are needed and how many lanes your drive-thru has. Expect to spend between $3,000 and $7,000 for a quality headset package. The timing loop is used to detect vehicles in the drive-thru lane and alert the team. In conjunction with the headset system, they can provide data on your speed of service. Loops should not exceed $500.

Additional branding signage should be used all along the customer’s path to the order window and even beyond. Adding graphic wings to clearance bars, canopies, and menu boards gives added surface area to promote your high-margin selections, seasonal items, upcoming events, and LTO’s. In addition, posters and window clings are great for building your brand. Prices will vary tremendously depending on what you are doing, from under $100 to over $1,000.

Order confirmation systems (OCS) are a great way to improve the guest experience by showing them their order so they can confirm that you have everything correct. Sometimes they are small “plug and play” screens adhered to the canopy pole or menu board hardware. Many brands are also now employing integrated OCS on digital menu boards. When a guest starts ordering, part of the digital screen converts to an order confirmation section. This may take some development work because there are so many different POS providers. The small screens should be less than $100. If you are going for the full integration with your POS, it will be at least $2,000, but may be significantly more depending on the POS and if there is any development cost. There may also be some recurring charges for content management.

Although this is a long list of variables, we have covered the most common elements of building out a successful and revenue-generating drive-thru. It may sound cliché, but over the years, we have learned that there really is no single standard, cookie-cutter drive-thru. Every site is different, and every customer has different ideas and goals. Our goal is to help you find the setup that works for you.