The future of fast food is almost unrecognizable

CNET Now What hears about new restaurant designs and a big shift to mobile ordering.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, Smart home, Digital health Credentials
  • 5G Technician, ETA International
Brian Cooley
2 min read

Quick and casual dining has swung hard toward mobile ordering, delivery and a contactless experience, yet most fast food restaurants look about the same as they did years ago. Now what?

Fast food brands have launched a breathtaking onslaught of new location designs that are built from the ground up to embrace habits that have been permanently changed by technology and a pandemic. Dedicated pick-up areas for app orders, automatic anticipation of those orders, payment by license plate recognition, a fully contactless restaurant, and even delivery to your car via conveyor belt are among the ideas that almost make burger-flipping robots look prosaic. 

Miso robotics at White Castle

  A Miso Robotics arm installed at White Castle restaurants works with human workers, rather than trying to completely replace them. An even more profound change to fast food is coming in the layout of restaurants.

Miso Robotics

McDonald's, Burger King, Chipotle, Taco Bell and KFC are just some of the big chains that have pivoted to these ideas over the last couple of months. "I've never seen more than two or three of these a year," says Danny Klein, director of digital content at QSR Magazine, a leading industry journal for the quick serve and fast food restaurant industries. "It's an acceleration of a model everyone is rushing to, which is a focus on off-premise business instead of dine in." Off-premise dining has expanded thanks to mobile app ordering, COVID-19 separation and a huge spike in food delivery

New Burger King restaurant design

Burger King is developing a restaurant design that would put the kitchen upstairs where it won't take up valuable parking, drive-through or pick-up space. Order delivery to cars would come via an enclosed conveyor belt.

Burger King

The ultimate visible change in fast food restaurants may be ones with no dining room at all. "The first time we heard this, it sounded crazy," recalls Klein. "Now, there's almost no major fast food chain that hasn't released one. Can they shrink the square footage inside the dining room and divert resources to where the consumer is headed? Dining out no longer means dining in."

Chipotle digital only kitchen

Chipotle recently introduced its first digital-only location that will open in Highland Falls, New York. Removing the dining room and order counter fits the move to app-based ordering and allows locations to open in smaller spaces.


Fast food restaurants will still have to deal with one old headache: labor. 150% annual employee turnover rates vex an industry that no longer counts on a steady stream of teenagers, happy to work for pocket money. Compounding that frustration is the availability of recently vacated, low cost commercial real estate which could power location expansion. "But the question is can you retain enough employees to actually open those restaurants?" asks Klein. "That's going to be the road block for a lot of fast food chains."

QSR Magazine's Danny Klein shared many more insights into the changes coming to fast food. Hear them all in the video above.


Now What is a video interview series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers that covers trends impacting businesses and consumers amid the "new normal." There will always be change in our world, and we'll be here to discuss how to navigate it all.   

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.