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As health authorities try to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, fast-food chains are grappling with how to keep staff safe and limit risks behind the scenes – especially when it comes to adopting physical distancing and other measures at fast-paced drive-through services.

Working the drive-through can be a hectic experience. Staff operate in close quarters, often juggling multiple tasks, to meet standards for how quickly they are expected to complete orders.

Chains including Harvey’s, Tim Hortons and McDonald’s say they are putting in new practices to encourage physical distancing in kitchen areas.

“We have introduced social distancing guidelines for our employees working in the kitchen … this includes limiting the number of staff in the kitchen and drive-thru areas, maintaining a two-metre distance at all times,” McDonald’s Canada spokesperson Leanna Rizzi said.

Harvey’s has new standards for keeping distance between employees with different roles, such as people working cash registers, those working on the grill and people adding garnishes to burgers.

“We are not, surprisingly, seeing a reduction in overall sales and a shift in our sales to channels like drive-through and delivery,” said Dave Colebrook, chief operating officer of Harvey’s, which is owned by Recipe Unlimited Corp.

One issue with drive-through windows is that staff frequently punch in orders, handle payment and hand over orders – meaning they are touching payment-system terminals and cash before touching beverage cups and bags of food. Harvey’s is asking guests to pay with debit or credit whenever possible – if a guest pays with cash, staff are asked to wash their hands immediately after handling money. At McDonald’s, staff who handle cash can use gloves, and as with many chains, they are being encouraged to wash their hands more frequently.

Some Tim Hortons drive-throughs have metal bins in place where order items are placed, so that staff members are not passing items hand to hand. The person at the window can then hold the bin out for customers to take their orders themselves. Tims locations have also moved their drive-through order takers to a different area to give them more space, and coloured tape has been placed on its kitchen floors to encourage employees to stay within their own zones and away from each other. Parent company Restaurant Brands International Inc. usually has performance metrics on which franchise locations are evaluated; during the pandemic, it has paused any evaluations not linked to health or food safety. This includes standards around drive-through speeds.

“We want to be quick,” Tim Hortons chief operating officer Mike Hancock said. “But all we’re talking to our team members about right now is safety.”

The restaurant industry has taken a major hit as a result of concerns around COVID-19. While fast-food chains are better positioned to continue operating than full-service restaurants that have either had to shutter entirely or attempt to pivot to takeout, they are still seeing customers’ habits shift. In a survey of 1,015 Canadians conducted by Dalhousie University last Monday, 12 said they were using food delivery apps such as Uber Eats more frequently, and 67 per cent said they were avoiding eating from fast-food restaurants – including takeout and drive-through services.

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