Some drive-thru improvements date back to before the crisis began. A year ago, Wienerschnitzel finalized a training program to become a drive-thru employee. The brand even gives an award for those who graduate to that level.
“We were almost ramping up for elevating our drive-thru to another level prior to [the pandemic] happening,” Bills says. “So I'm extremely proud of being in position on that. Being in the company for 14 years, I'm grateful that we didn't have to stop and throw everything away and start over. We were already there.”
Because of rising drive-thru sales and little reliance on indoor dining, Wienerschnitzel wasn’t fazed by capacity restrictions other than the first lockdown. More than 70 percent of the system is in California, a state shuttering on-premises dining, both inside and outdoors. Although that seriously affects many brands, especially full-service operators, the reality is Wienerschnitzel benefited during periods of closed dining rooms.
The growth in business led to an increased consumer base. According to internal surveys, 8 to 10 percent of customers during the pandemic have been new users. Wienerschnitzel also saw once-a-month guests turn into twice a month. Bills attributes that to a fun and quirky marketing program, the closure of other restaurants, and the company’s ability to keep employees and customers safe.
“We were very proactive at the onset of this to make sure our crews have the plexiglass,” Bills says. “We were going to Home Depot and Lowe’s before it was trendy, and we were cutting plexiglass. I had my field team go out and place it on the windows and the walkup counters at our restaurants for the franchisees. We wanted them to feel safe. We wanted our customers to feel good. We had to put gloves on California's employees, which is so challenging because they've never been required. I think that's all helped gain traction with new guests.”
The rest of the industry swiftly realized the effectiveness of drive-thrus as seen by many brands creating makeshift routes with traffic cones and other materials. Several fast-casuals, like Chipotle, Noodles & Company, and Qdoba, are ratcheting up drive-thru development to meet mounting demand.
So that begs the question, how much more competitive will real estate become with more brands jostling for land that caters to drive-thru? Bills says Wienerschnitzel doesn’t even attempt to fight with the bigger companies when it comes to real estate. Instead, the brand pivoted and looked at nontraditional areas that fit its recent model, which is only 800 square feet and features a drive-thru and walkup counter. The Wienerschnitzel executive notes those can be placed on 15,000- to-18,000-square-foot parcels, which he says is unheard of because most quick-service brands typically need around 40,000 square feet.
Wienerschnitzel found success with pads in front of anchors like Lowe’s and Walmart where space is shared and overflow parking is utilized.
“A lot of people were very open and flexible to endcaps. We’re flexible to freestanding, and we’re flexible to conversions,” Bills says. “We’ve had four conversions open up this year from whatever existing business it was. We go in there and redo the kitchen, we redo the outside, and those were very flexible for us. And it's less expensive for the franchise community, as well.”
Bills says that instead of expecting to fall off a cliff, Wienerschnitzel is moving forward with the mindset successes will endure and the industry won’t shift back to how it operated pre-COVID.
The belief is franchisee profitability will continue—that’s the basis of every decision made at Wienerschnitzel.
“That's not just a quirky statement,” Bills says. "That’s something that we do. Our increased sales have been phenomenal, but we're most proud of them being primarily full-priced, high profitable transactions. And that's what drives our franchisees into that trust factor with us because they know that we're looking out for them.”