Web Exclusive | August 2010 | By Sam Oches

Drive Thru, the Huddle House Way

The full-service chain is including a drive thru in its new store prototype in an effort to reach more transient consumers.

The recession helped to blur the line between the quick-serve and casual-dining segments, as price points and service techniques jumped the industry fence in the competition for diners’ dollars. But one full-service chain, Huddle House, decided that with its new store design, it would firmly plant one foot on either side of that fence.

Huddle House’s newest store prototype, while maintaining a table-service dining room, dives deep into quick service with the implementation of a drive thru.

“[It’s a] chance to capture some of that traffic that maybe doesn’t have the time to sit down and … have their meal,” says Jim Bullock, director of franchise development for Atlanta-based Huddle House.

The Huddle House drive thru—which the chain dubbed the Huddle Thru, and which will debut in October—will maintain the same kind of speed customers might get at any other drive thru, Bullock says, but will serve the same type of comfort diner food customers have come to expect from the chain.

The Huddle Thru, however, will feature a separate menu from the dining room to maintain speed of service. Items include Pot Roast, Chicken and Dumplings, Baked Chicken, and Sweet Potato Casserole. There will also be a number of breakfast options, like a Breakfast Quesadilla.

The operations of Huddle House were redesigned to include both a cook-to-order method for dine-in consumers and a batch-and-hold method for the Huddle Thru.

By offering the same kind of Huddle House food to a new kind of consumer—notably on-the-go, transient consumers—Bullock says the Huddle Thru will help expand the chain’s reach. 

“People might be willing to try something new if they’re able to just get in and out,” Bullock says. “Once we get them through there, they’re going to start coming back for the rest of the menu.”

New real estate will also help the Huddle Thru expand the company’s reach. Bullock says that while Huddle House stores are typically located in smaller, more rural communities, units with a Huddle Thru will be directed at larger markets. 

The first Huddle Thru is set to debut in October on the Fort Benning Military Base in Georgia.

Using the name Huddle Thru instead of drive thru for the new concept may have been a big save for Huddle House. John Miologos, executive vice president of architecture, engineering & construction management at WD Partners, says the words drive thru imply quick service that could short change a casual concept’s dining experience.

Miologos says a casual-dining concept with a drive thru creates disconnect from the consumer. He says if a casual restaurant wants to add speed and convenience, it should add curbside pick-up, which he says has been a hit with fast casuals. 

“The Huddle Thru is a chance for franchisees to take a little bit more of the market segment away from some of the competitors.”

“If casuals were going to borrow, they would borrow from fast casual versus going all the way to quick service,” he says. “I would support a one step down versus a two step down.”

But Miologos says that any way a restaurant can save the consumer time is a good thing. 

“Time constraint is still a big issue in American society, and it’s a growing issue,” he says. “Whatever a concept can do to give us back time, I think is a wonderful thing to strive for.”

The Huddle House changes come at an eventful time for the chain. Same-store sales for the month of July were up 3.5 percent over July 2009, and on Monday, CEO Phil Greifeld announced he was leaving to become the CEO of Captain D’s. 

But Bullock says the Huddle Thru is still tirring excitement in the company, particularly with its franchisees.

“In the future, we’re talking about possibly retrofitting,” Bullock says. “It’s a chance for them to … take a little bit more of the market segment away from some of the competitors.”

Besides the Fort Benning store, a few more Huddle Thrus are already in development. But Bullock says the company remains reluctant to aggressively push the drive-thru concept to franchisees.

The company is also cautious in selecting the right franchisees to open a unit with a Huddle Thru. Specifically, execs are looking for new franchisees with quick-service, drive-thru experience.

“Having somebody that has that experience is great because we’re able to say, ‘OK this is what we’re thinking about,’ and he can say, ‘No, in real time that’s not going to work,’” Bullock says. “It’s kind of a give-and-take relationship, and they’re able to bring some ideas to the table.”