The drive thru has seen better days.
The model exploded in the ’50s and ’60s as mega chains like McDonald’s planted their flags across many a highway and within suburban communities, and, over time, hungry road warriors came to count on these fast-food leaders for their quickness, consistency, and convenience.
But even though consumers are arguably busier than ever before, the drive thru is no longer as vital a service for many American families. According to a report from The NPD Group, drive-thru volumes dropped by 128 million visits between May 2014 and May 2016 (compared to a 69 million boost to the number of delivery orders).
The referendum on drive thru would appear to have less to do with service times and price and more to do with food quality and nutrition. As any number of studies and surveys indicate, consumers want healthier options for themselves and for their children, too. And the more health-forward fast casuals have tended to opt against including a drive-thru operation.
That might soon change, however. Some upstart brands are leaning into drive thru, looking to repurpose the service model and, in the process, change how people think about it.
“I love that everybody’s scared of drive thrus … because then we can be the only players. When a McDonald’s closes … I love that we’re the only ones trying to go after it,” says Bryn Davis, founder of Pennsylvania-based Bryn + Dane’s, which features healthier alternatives to standard quick-service items. “My whole entire thesis for even opening is that there’s nothing wrong with fast food; it’s just the purveyors that were offering the fast food.”
Named after Davis and his teenage brother, Bryn + Dane’s relishes pursuing opportunities that others might consider pitfalls. By the end of this year, the brand will have six restaurants open in the greater Philadelphia area; half will feature a drive thru, and all but one—a downtown unit—will be standalone.
This growth strategy is intentional. Because many health-peddling concepts have targeted urban areas with more foot traffic, the suburbs and smaller cities—which offer more appropriate real estate for drive thrus—are often left out of the quick-service renaissance.
“While all of our competitors want to go into the cities, most of them don’t even want to go into suburbs, which is awesome [for us]. Most of them just want to go to really cool, funky cities and open up awesome, hipster, beautiful, niche restaurants,” Davis says. Instead of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, he says, second- and third-tier markets like Tampa, Florida, and Savannah, Georgia, are the kinds of cities Bryn + Dane’s will home in on. “For us, going where the competition isn’t makes so much more sense,” Davis says.
Similar to Davis, Erin McKool, a former corporate attorney, fully embraced drive thru when she founded Start: Real Food Fast in Dallas in 2012. The menu features fast-food staples like burgers and breakfast sandwiches, but with high-quality, healthier ingredients (think grass-fed beef, organic eggs, salads with house-made sauces, and fruit smoothies).
McKool also incorporated design flourishes that hearken back to the heyday of drive thru. Neon signs illuminate the otherwise modern building of wood paneling, while arrows point guests to the drive thru.
“The drive thru isn’t going to go away anytime soon, because people are in more of a hurry than ever,” McKool says. Rather than try to change people’s lifestyle habits, McKool knew she could tap into the base of frequent drive-thru customers by offering a one-of-a-kind alternative.
Both Start locations are inside Dallas’s inner downtown loop, not in the suburbs. But, unlike other major cities, downtown Dallas relies heavily on cars, not pedestrian traffic, making it the ideal big market for this service model.
Nevertheless, McKool says the brand must overcome some consumer bias associated with drive thru. The misconceptions surrounding Start generally stem from consumers who have never visited either restaurant. Start was purposeful in not putting “healthy” in the brand name or signage because, as McKool says, it can mean so many things to different people. She didn’t want Start’s wholesome and clean approach to food to be misconstrued as low-calorie.
Another conundrum that emerging drive thrus face is the matter of categories: Are they fast food or fast casual?
“I’m really struggling with that myself. We’re still more in the fast-casual category. I don’t think people are ready for us to say ‘fast food’ yet because it does have such a negative blanket meaning, but I don’t think we’re fast casual either,” McKool says. “We’re building our own category at the moment, and I’m not sure what we should call it. It’s not quite fast food, and it’s something different from fast casual.”
Davis, however, takes a different viewpoint. He points out that like traditional fast food, Bryn + Dane’s operates during all three dayparts and includes a children’s menu (he also estimates that parents with children make up 95 percent of its drive-thru traffic). Fast casuals, on the other hand, do not generally serve all three (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), nor do they cater to children, he says.
As a mother, McKool knew family business—including a kids’ menu—would be part of Start’s mission and foundation, and she wasn’t the only founder to put children’s health at the forefront.
In fact, a health scare involving one of her children is what spurred Shannon Allen, wife of former NBA All-Star Ray Allen, to start Grown in Miami. Several years ago, while she was running errands, the Allens’ middle son, Walker, who has Type 1 Diabetes, began experiencing a blood sugar drop. Shannon Allen knew he needed food immediately, but she could not find a single healthy fast-food option.
“I was so frustrated that with all the technological advances and modern conveniences at our fingertips, we were still only being offered processed food at drive thrus,” Allen writes in an email. “The drive thru isn’t just a part of what we do at Grown; it’s the reason there is a Grown.”
While her situation with her son might be unique, Allen knew that all parents—whether or not they had a child with special dietary needs—were looking for food options that were healthy, affordable, and convenient.
The first Grown location opened in March, and already the restaurant is receiving praise from those who matter most: customers. Allen recalls a recent encounter in which a mom with a car full of groceries and kids thanked her for saving the family from a sad dinner of boxed macaroni and cheese.
“We’re not just reinventing fast food; we’re eliminating mom guilt,” she says. “Fast food is a winning model; it’s not broken. The industry just has to tweak what’s being offered at the drive thru.”
What’s offered at Grown eschews the traditional fast-food fare. Instead of upscale burgers, the menu features entrées you might expect to find at a full-service restaurant: slow-cooked grass-fed brisket, grilled wild-caught salmon, grilled shrimp, and free-range rotisserie chicken. Cold-pressed juices, smoothies, soups, and breakfast options like avocado toast and gluten-free pancakes round out the menu.
The high quality and freshness of offerings at this new class of drive thru might draw health-conscious consumers, but they do come at a price—both in terms of commodity costs and time.
At Start, the drive-thru service model doesn’t increase the overhead cost. The real expense comes from labor and food costs. McKool says it can be difficult to keep the menu from becoming cost-prohibitive when the brand is purchasing ingredients like organic peanut butter, eggs, and milk. Labor costs are also an important consideration, since Start’s menu is more work-intensive than the average drive thru.
“Our labor is expensive, too, because there is so much food prep,” McKool says. “At one of our locations, which is a little bit smaller than the second one, we have somebody who has to work all night long chopping vegetables and making items because there’s not enough space to do it during the day and facilitate the drive thru and the dine-in traffic.” Start manages to make it work; lunch and dinner entrées clock in under $10.
Another operator that keeps menu prices low without skimping on quality is Amy’s Drive Thru. Located in Sonoma County, California, this young concept just celebrated its first anniversary in July, though the Amy’s brand has been around far longer. The family-founded Amy’s Kitchen has been redefining frozen food with its organic vegetarian meals since the 1980s.
Although Amy’s Drive Thru does not use frozen food and features its own proprietary recipes, the restaurant shares its commitment to premium vegetarian fare. With most entrées under $5, the prices aren’t too far from the frozen meals of Amy’s Kitchen.
“The idea for this restaurant has been almost eight years in the making,” says Paul Schiefer, director of international and restaurant operations at Amy’s. He says the initial seed was planted by customers who would compliment Amy’s for transforming frozen food and ask the company to do the same with fast food. “From a pretty early-on place, we wanted to do a new version of classic American fast food—that was really the idea that sparked the whole thing. The drive thru was really integral to that from the very beginning.”
Like Start, Amy’s doesn’t push “healthy” or “vegetarian.” In fact, it doesn’t even advertise that Amy’s Drive Thru is part of the same parent company as the frozen foods, though Schiefer thinks people are able to connect the two because Amy’s is one of the largest employers in Sonoma County.
Despite that, Schiefer says, the brand has faced some resistance from the urban planning department, which wanted to stem the prevalence of drive thrus given their unhealthy reputation. “That perception has impacted various city planning folks in terms of wanting to allow more drive thrus into an area. We have run into that, and I think our drive thru is really changing some of that perception,” he says. The sweet spot for Amy’s lies in combining the quick convenience of fast food at the drive thru with the relaxed, inviting atmosphere of a fast casual inside, he adds.
What all these new drive thrus share with fast casual—and, more specifically, with the premium fast casual 2.0 segment—is a prep-intensive back of house. Start aims to take no longer than five minutes between when a customer places and receives an order, but that number can be pushed up if there’s a special or customized order.
In addition to scheduling overnight food prep, McKool has other ideas to further cut that time. “The other thing we’d like to do is have a commissary, because we do so much from scratch, like our salad dressing,” she says, adding that such a facility would be key if and when Start expands beyond the Dallas area.
Bryn + Dane’s average ticket time is always under three minutes, Davis says. This quick turnaround implies neither a limited menu—the brand serves everything from wraps and build-your-own bowls to salads and entrée plates—nor ease. Davis calls drive-thru speed “extraordinarily difficult; it’s probably the biggest operation question by far,” but it’s an important one. Drive thru accounts for roughly 42 percent of business at applicable locations.
Every day at 4:30 a.m., Davis checks an online report that tracks average ticket times. He and his team also play with algorithms to get a better idea of how the kitchen operates and what time gaps exist among drive thru, dine in, and pick up.
Davis says that so long as the kitchen is organized and does ample prep, Bryn + Dane’s can keep the drive thru moving quickly. “The preparation is everything for us,” he adds.
Like many major chains, Bryn + Dane’s is also embracing technology to improve drive-thru efficiency. The brand has its own app powered by ChowNow, which allows users to store credit-card information, choose a pickup location and time, save favorite dishes, customize their selections, and even order ahead of time. Rather than waiting in the drive-thru queue, guests receive their orders with curbside pickup. Davis also recognizes that such technology could displace the need for drive thru farther down the line.
“Embracing all those things and setting ourselves up to adjust to the market is something we talk about all the time,” Davis says. “I would love if everybody ordered off our app, came in, scheduled their pickup time, and we could adjust it and make it so that their food is ready when they walk in.”
For now, at least, customers are still willing to wait in those lanes. In fact, they might be more patient at these new restaurants than the traditional players.
Like other healthy drive thrus, Amy’s requires a lot of prep; Schiefer estimates the time between order and pick up to be about six minutes. Still, he’s quick to point out that customers are receiving a handmade meal created by chefs (Amy’s chefs ideate new foods for both the frozen-food and drive-thru businesses). So far, it appears that guests are more than willing to wait for their organic Super Salad or Brown Rice Chili Bowl.
“We’ve been blown away by the success of it so far. We’re doing more than double the volume that even our most optimistic projections thought we could do,” Schiefer says, adding that the restaurant has welcomed everyone from food activists and senior citizens to first responders and former McDonald’s regulars. “I think that’s really been fun for us to see how we can blend all of these demographics into one restaurant format.”
Start’s McKool says she has had the occasional complaint about wait times in the drive thru, especially when complicated orders are involved. Overall, though, customers are happy to wait a bit longer for better food. After all, she says, it’s not as if customers lack the patience for other premium foods.
“There are people who are definitely willing to wait. They wait in Starbucks for 15 minutes for a coffee,” she says. “As long as it’s a reasonable amount of time, people are willing to wait.”
These upstart drive-thru brands are purposeful and particular in their expansion plans. Bryn + Dane’s expects to open three new stores by the end of the year, but that’s after three years of perfecting the system and promoting the brand. Four-year-old Start will open its third location, in Frisco, Texas, in the spring. Amy’s Drive Thru is focusing on its breakfast launch this fall, and Schiefer says it’s a whole new business segment with a “whole lot to learn.”
Similarly, Grown might not have immediate plans for expansion, but Allen believes the healthy drive-thru resurgence will spread—and not just through young brands.
“Not only will you see new concepts, like ours, popping up all over the world, I think you’ll also see the blue-chip concepts adding more freshly prepared, responsibly sourced offerings to their menus to appeal to today’s customers,” she says. “It can’t happen fast enough.”