Do fast-food chains still need dining rooms?

McDonald's golden arches sign.
McDonald's golden arches sign.

Amid rising Delta variant cases of Covid-19 and continued worker shortages, some fast-food restaurants are closing their dining rooms. It may be some never reopen them.

Last week, McDonald’s gave franchises guidance about closing indoor seating in places where the Delta variant is rising, Reuters reported. It is not clear how many locations have closed indoor dining or when they will. In early 2020, McDonald’s, which has over 38,000 locations worldwide, closed nearly all US locations but reopened 70% of them by last month.

That comes as some Chick-fil-A franchisees in Alabama and North Carolina recently closed their dining rooms due to worker shortages and rising Covid-19 cases. While sit-in areas may be closed, the locations are still offering other ways of getting food whether via pickup, delivery, and drive-thru. The fast-food company, which has over 2,500 sites, says the decision to do so is “temporary.”

But as the pandemic continues to change the restaurant industry—whether that’s cutting back on staff, turning to delivery, or investing in new business models like ghost kitchens—it raises the question of whether fast-food chains still need dining rooms at all.

The changing restaurant architecture

In some cases, the loss of indoor dining will “be permanent because they are investing quite a bit in changing the architecture of their restaurants,” says Mahmood Khan, a professor of hospitality and tourism management at Virginia Tech who focuses on the food service industry.

For instance, some fast-food restaurants like Taco Bell are creating multiple lanes in part to cater to delivery drivers. These chains have depended on their drive-through windows during the pandemic, and there continues to be increased interest among customers in picking up meals. Meanwhile, fast food chains like Wendy’s have been turning to ghost kitchens—which are essentially restaurants without a storefront—as they would rather deliver meals themselves than outsource it to third-party delivery companies and lose the commission, says Khan. And, for some restaurants, the reopening of dining rooms may come with more hassle and expenses than it’s worth.

But restaurants that are in malls or have playgrounds are likely to continue to have sit-in dining, as they cater to children—which is a big market, Khan says. “Children would like to go and get some happy meal or enjoy and get some balloons. That is part of the fast food operations.” At the same time, a delivery-only restaurant limits what type of food can be delivered.

In the future, franchises will have more choice, he says, from choosing between smaller-size restaurants with kiosks to a full-on brick-and-mortar restaurant, and now dine-in or takeout-only services.

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