The evolution of a post-pandemic drive-in restaurant

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Perhaps the stickiest trend that has resulted from the pandemic is the deepening of affection for drive-thru restaurants

If Americans didn’t like picking up food without leaving their cars before the pandemic, they certainly do now.

In a July report, consumer behavior watchdog Revenue Management Services, or RMS, said drive-thru accounted for about 75% of quick service sales, up from more than 90% at the height of the pandemic when Restaurant dining rooms were closed. But, even with restaurants returning, restaurateurs across the industry said their drive-thru business remained strong.

Between the first and second quarters of this year, drive-thru revenue fell 10.3%, while restaurants (up 2.8%), take-out (up 1.6 %) and shipments (up 0.5%) increased, according to RMS. But soaring gasoline prices were partly to blame, and drive-thru operations were expected to resume for the summer. RMS polls indicated that 21% of consumers plan to visit drive-thru “more” or “much more” in the near future, compared to 16% who said the same in the first quarter.

In fact, with consumers reluctant to give up the convenience of drive-thru, take-out and take-out restaurant brands, like Applebee’s and Auntie Anne’s, are getting into the drive-thru game.

The same goes for Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, an upscale taco joint based in Dallas.

“Adding a drive-thru makes it even easier for us to serve our customers and we’re thrilled to be the first Fuzzy’s Taco Shop to do so,” said Richard Maddox, owner of Fuzzy’s in Auburn, Utah. Alabama, home to the chain’s first drive-thru when it opened in July.

But for chains that have long competed for drive-thru, the question isn’t necessarily whether to offer a lane for cars, but what features those lanes should have and how many.

Post-pandemic drive-thru is a far cry from the “talk to the clown” shoutbox of decades past. Restaurant drive-thru has evolved tremendously, with chains adding sophisticated technology to make the process easier.

Speed ​​and ease of service are goals, of course, but with more restaurants looking to add drive-thru access to properties, they’re also under more pressure to prevent the buildup of lines of cars that can jam streets or parking lots and attract complaints.

Some brands are eliminating the food ordering process entirely from the drive-thru, creating lanes for digital-only pickup, which avoids the notorious slowdown in customer decision-making at the point of order.

Chipotle Mexican Grill has been leading this trend with its Chipotlane locations. The 3,000-unit chain has over 400 units with Chipotlanes, which are designed purely for digital order pick-up.

Last year, the company opened 215 new restaurants, and about 80% of them featured a Chipotlane. Over the past three years, the chain has added Chipotlanes to about two dozen existing units, with another dozen slated for conversion this summer and more in the pipeline, company officials said.

The Chipotlanes have changed that. New units with Chipotlane tend to sell on average about 15% more than locations without drive-thru. Adding a drive-thru lane to an existing unit can increase sales by 5-6%, compared to the unit’s performance before the drive-thru.

Digital only

Other brands are following the focus on digital control only for their drive-thru.

Earlier this year, Sweetgreen announced plans to open its first advance-order drive-thru pickup lane — to be called Sweetlanes — in Schaumburg, Illinois.

Chick-fil-A said in June it was testing express drive-thru lanes that will only be available for mobile orders. Customers can use the app to scan a QR code and drive around the building for pickup, avoiding the hassle of waiting for others to place orders through the traditional drive-thru. The chain operates the express drive-thru at around 60 units, with a larger rollout expected next year.

Earlier this year, Jimmy John’s also launched a prototype drive-thru only in Bartow, Florida, a double-sided unit with a dedicated lane for digital controls. Customers also have the option of exiting their car and entering to collect their food from the take-out lockers.

Checkers and Rally’s, a brand known for its dual drive-thru, has begun converting one lane where possible to digital order pickup, while maintaining a traditional drive-thru lane where customers can order their meals.

The brands include 812 restaurants, 780 of which have drive-thru. Today, 347 units have been converted to include a dedicated “e-commerce” lane, and the company said it encourages franchisees to continue conversions.

“Not only is the demand for drive-thru growing to meet changing consumer preferences for speed and convenience, [but] so does the ability to order ahead for even faster pickup,” said Brad Williams, Vice President of Franchise Restaurants at Checkers/Rally. “Our dedicated e-commerce lanes provide this option, while allowing our team to anticipate orders in advance, reduce assembly times for key products, and fulfill those orders with less dedicated staff.”

Defy the trends

One chain the industry is watching is Taco Bell, which opened its long-awaited Defy model earlier this year in Minnesota.

Opened by franchisee Border Foods in June, the new Taco Bell Defy is a two-story restaurant with a four-lane drive-thru that runs under the building. Customers can walk in, scan a QR code, and their Crunchwrap and Wild Cherry Freeze pop out of the second-floor kitchen in the modern equivalent of a dumbwaiter. The unit was expected to halve the line’s average shift times to around two minutes.

The Defy model has a traditional drive-thru lane, where customers can order, but the other three are dedicated to digital orders.

Lee Engler, co-founder and CEO of Border Foods, said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “Our estimated throughput of the current Taco Bell Defy prototype is [two to three times] that of our standard restaurants with an increase in e-commerce sales,” he said.

Mike Grams, president and global COO of Taco Bell, added that the new Defy unit has attracted a surplus of talent hoping to work in the futuristic unit. Now the company is exploring how to scale a potential Taco Bell Defy 2.0, and Border Foods is looking at ways to retrofit its existing units with some aspects of the Defy model.

Taco Bell, based in Irvine, Calif., is also expanding its Go Mobile format, first revealed in 2020. Originally designed for faster pickup for the brand’s growing digital business, Go Mobile has evolved in the post-pandemic era to accommodate peak delivery, said Raul Lepe, senior vice president, strategic planning and operations for Diversified Restaurant Group, which operates about 300 Taco Bells.

Diversified recently opened its first Go Mobile location in Las Vegas, where the franchisee is based. This unit has a dual drive-thru with a dedicated lane for digital orders and delivery.

So far, about 60% of the unit’s drive-thru business goes through the traditional channel, where customers can order. But in the digital-only route, there’s no waiting — which Lepe says will further drive adoption because it provides a better experience.

This is essential for delivery drivers in particular, as they are increasingly selective and more likely to jump on orders from restaurants “where they know if they pick up that order they are going to have a fast and transparent,” he said. .

Delivery drivers don’t want to be slowed down by customers. But customers also don’t want to wait behind delivery drivers — a bottleneck that can arise later when dining rooms are closed.

“[It used to be] I could arrive late at night in the drive-thru and there could be four delivery orders in front of me,” Lepe said. “Now, these customers are no longer penalized. We try to create a win-win solution for those who really take advantage of the digital option. »

The stacking challenge

Brands like Taco Bell and Chipotle, however, have been steadily growing their digital business for years. Chains like Arby’s are in the early stages of growing digital sales.

Arby’s franchisee Anoop Kang, CEO of Kang Foods LLC, recently opened his company’s first dual drive-thru unit in Oroville, Calif., with two order points that merge into a single lane for payment and the pickup. Digital pickup was not a priority, he said, but the unit could be converted later as Arby’s builds digital sales.

Kang’s goal was to add more stacking on the restaurant property to improve flow. The unit can accommodate about 18 to 20 cars on the property without blocking the street or irritating neighboring businesses, he said.

“The queues are quite long, but we’re happy with how it’s gone so far,” he said.

Operator of six Arby’s, he estimates that around 70% of sales come from drive-thrus in traditional units, but he expects double drive-thru to make up around 80%.

For Kang, the stacking problem was his main problem. Chains like Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out Burger and Starbucks — with their wildly popular drive-thrus — are giving car-only lanes a bad name.

“Many cities in California are getting stricter with their drive-thru approvals,” he said. “You need more space for a double bed…but the investment is worth it. We have seen our drive-thru cars and revenue steadily increase.

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