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    In Race for Convenience, Fast Casuals Embrace the Drive Thru

  • For a long time, fast-casual brands rejected drive thru as a hallmark of fast food. But that’s starting to change.

    Cava
    The Pickup By Car program allows customers to order on the CAVA app or website, select a pickup time, and drive directly to a window to receive their meal.

    The Pie Five drive-thru experience was never meant to fully emulate the ultra-quick speed found at blue-chip quick-service chains, which have labored for decades to perfect the science of moving cars and food as quickly as possible.

    “Customers understand they’re dealing with something different than just a hamburger drive thru,” says Christina Coy, vice president of marketing for the fast-casual pizza chain. “The expectation is that it’s going to take a little longer.” 

    Speed aside, Pie Five’s drive-thru experience does seek to mirror the convenience factor of traditional drive-thru outlets. Since 2016, the Texas-based company has added four drive-thru windows at new stores, with plans for more to come. Coy says the build-your-own-pizza company wanted to provide a convenient option for ever-busy customers. While it can’t match the pace of quick-serve competitors, Pie Five drive thrus offer comparable speeds to those found inside the fast-casual stores; drive thrus deliver made-to-order pizzas out the window in 6 minutes or less, Coy says. Pie Five operators have noticed the option has been especially popular among families who don’t want to unload the whole gang to come inside a store.

    READ MORE: Check out the QSR 2019 Drive-Thru Study.

    “It's just as fast or faster than if you were to go in the restaurant,” Coy says. “It’s a convenience factor for families. So what they see is a majority of parents with children in the car with them. They say by far dinner is their busiest time. And it’s usually an early dinner, people stopping on their way home from work.”

    Fast-casual mainstays like Fazoli’s and Panera Fast-casual mainstays like Fazoli’s and Panera have long offered drive-thru service. But in recent years—amid the rise of other convenience-driven efforts like third-party delivery services and mobile ordering—more fast-casual brands have begun experimenting with and introducing drive thrus and pickup windows to win over customers. This aggressive race to deliver on convenience represents a big shift for a dining segment originally built on a foundation of offering more premium selections than the burgers and fries found in many quick-service restaurants. Fast casual’s focus on food quality and customizable ingredients has often come with a trade-off of higher prices and longer preparation times than typically work in the drive thru.

    But fast-casual operators have found ways of breaking through those barriers—some say they have no choice. Coy says brands like Pie Five can’t afford to ignore wider societal shifts. As the popularity of third-party delivery shows, consumers increasingly prioritize convenience over many other factors when it comes to making dining decisions. 

    “With today’s type of consumer, man, if you can do a drive thru, why wouldn’t you? It’s just so fast and easy,” she says. “People want the fastest product possible. And sometimes that’s a drive thru.” 

    Pie Five
    Pie Five’s drive-thru experience does seek to mirror the convenience factor of traditional drive-thru outlets.

    To translate the customizable pie concept to the drive thru, the brand streamlined its menu. Unlike inside, drive-thru menus don’t list every possible ingredient option, and the company ditched some of its more complicated signature pizza recipes to keep things simple. 

    “The purpose is to kind of push people in the direction of ordering one of the signature pizzas on the list,” Coy says. “And the people who have been in the store before and already know what they want can just look and not have to go through a laundry list of toppings.”

    Real estate has been the biggest challenge with Pie Five’s transition to the drive thru. All four drive thrus were built into new stores rather than retrofitted into older ones. Most of the brand’s 58 units are in-line stores, and securing larger end-cap locations is inherently more expensive. But the larger investment has paid off: In stores that have them, drive thrus account for about 20 percent of annual sales—a figure that approaches 30 percent during the colder winter months.

    Pie Five is far from alone. In recent months, fast-casual brands like Chipotle, Corner Bakery, and CAVA have all made investments in the drive thru. That will likely propel more fast casuals to do the same in the coming years, says Danny Bendas, managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants.

    But he says brands without a drive-thru experience should approach the space with caution. The drive thru is a complicated animal that can upend back-of-house operations, drive up labor costs, and place new real estate demands on operators. Bendas says restaurants also run the risk of cannibalizing their existing dine-in or pickup occasions when adding a drive-thru option. 

    “Are they just trading where people pick up their food or get their food?” Bendas says. “There’s this same thing going on with [third-party] delivery: Is it increasing sales or are they just splitting how people are getting their food? What’s the actual ROI? Are you really increasing revenue, or are you just trading dollars?”

    Fundamentally, Bendas urges fast-casual operators to question whether a drive thru makes sense with their individual concepts and consider any unintended consequences. 

    “You can do a lot of things to try to build sales and then totally confuse your guests as to who you are,” he says. “What does it do to your brand? What does it do to the quality of your product? These are all things you need to carefully consider. There are a million things you’ve got to think about before you pull the trigger.”

    But he still thinks drive thrus can work well for some fast-casual operations. 

    “It’s worth taking a look at,” Bendas says. “There are opportunities if it’s the right fit.”

    He says the rise of the fast-casual drive thru is emblematic of larger shifts in the restaurant industry. Operators have learned that demands for speed and convenience aren’t limited to any one segment of the restaurant industry. But even in this new reality, customers aren’t unreasonable, Bendas says. They don’t expect fast casuals to offer the same levels of speed found at quick-serve stores. 

    “If the consumer understands the brand and they know that they have to wait, I don’t think that’s a problem." — Danny Bendas, managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants.

    Cava
    CAVA now has a handful of locations where guests can pick up mobile orders in a drive thru.

    “I don’t think there’s a comparison anymore that drive thru equals fast food. I think that mold is broken by Panera and Chipotle and Starbucks. Who would have thought Starbucks would have been big in drive thru?” he says. “If the consumer understands the brand and they know that they have to wait, I don’t think that’s a problem. ... The explanation of that is very important, but generally speaking, people will wait a little longer for quality.”

    Likewise, those operators that implement pickup windows over order-at-the-speaker drive thrus need to be clear about their programs, Bendas says. He likes Chipotle’s model for that reason. 

    The burrito baron introduced pickup windows it calls “Chipotlanes” in 2018. At press time, the company had 16 stores with the drive-thru pickup service. Customers order on the Chipotle app and pick up their order in a drive thru at a designated time. 

    “Chipotle always had a problem with drive thru because, how do you customize in a drive thru?” Bendas says. “The upside for Chipotle is that it’s a way for them to get product out the door more conveniently for the consumer. And the speed is still good because all their product is really ready to go. It’s not like they’re cooking to order.”

    From the very beginning, Chipotle leaders looked for something other than the standard drive-thru setup. “The solution of a traditional drive thru isn’t necessarily the most convenient one,” says Tabassum Zalotrawala, Chipotle’s chief development officer, “because we know the future is on the smartphone.”

    The 16 stores with pickup windows have all experienced incremental sales growth that more than justifies the additional cost. In July, Chipotle officials announced the chain had nearly doubled digital sales during the second quarter; in total, online channels accounted for nearly one-fifth of overall sales. 

    “The proof is in the pudding,” Zalotrawala says. “If we weren’t getting our investment back, we wouldn’t be doing more. Definitely, there’s a return on the investment.”

    By their nature, Chipotlanes are simpler than their quick-serve drive-thru cousins. They require less space because they’re not designed to accommodate long lines of cars. Because all ordering is completed on the app, no signs or menuboards are required. And customers pay in advance, cutting down time at the window. 

    “Chipotlane truly works and offers the convenience that our consumers are asking for,” Zalotrawala says. “You don’t have to wait. You can order your favorite burrito while you’re doing something else—not have to wait a minute, pick your food up, and go.”

    Operationally, Chipotlanes are fueled by a dedicated digital make line, which helps protect the in-store dining experience. So far, Zalotrawala says, stores with pickup windows haven’t experienced any declining in-store traffic.

    Chipotle
    Chipotle introduced pickup windows it calls “Chipotlanes” in 2018.

    The development of future Chipotlanes will largely depend on real estate. Zalotrawala says the company will always pursue the best sites first and figure out whether a pickup window makes sense after. But she says the Chipotlane is here to stay because it’s meeting customer demands for convenience. 

    “I don’t think it’s something you can ignore. People want fast. And they want the convenience,” Zalotrawala says. “It’s definitely a big deal. Think about a mom with two kids in car seats in the back. It’s not super convenient for her to come in and actually pick a bag up. … It’s absolutely much more convenient for her to drive through the Chipotlane.”

    Mediterranean fast-casual concept CAVA launched a similar pickup service in April of this year, beginning with a store in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina. The program quickly spread to stores in Texas and Maryland, with plans to open two more this year.

    CAVA’s Pickup By Car program is just the latest iteration of efforts to reach customers across various channels, whether it’s fast casual, consumer packaged goods, or sit-down restaurants, says Ben Famous, the brand’s head of strategic communications and brand marketing.  

    “Adding another vertical was a natural next step,” he says. 

    The Washington, D.C.–based company saw a demand in suburban markets for a quick and convenient pickup option, Famous says. But it wanted to offer a new take on the traditional drive-thru model. The Pickup By Car program allows customers to order on the CAVA app or website, select a pickup time, and drive directly to a window to receive their meal. 

    “By eliminating staticky headphones and squawk boxes, the user-friendly online ordering option brings our guests the same pleasant and efficient experience they are used to receiving at CAVA, but on the go,” he says. 

    Famous says the pickup window has significantly minimized wait times by allowing customers to track the status of their orders in the app. Inside the stores, the company has worked with operations teams to ensure crews are equipped to serve customers in their cars and at the counter with consistent speed and service.

    “Though in its early stages, we’re seeing great adoption to Pickup By Car from our guests,” he says. “It does not seem that there is any one type of guest who uses the model over others, but instead, our customers have been very receptive in adopting a new avenue to get their CAVA fix in a fast and efficient format.”

    The pickup window is just one piece of the company’s sophisticated digital infrastructure. Aside from its digital app, CAVA is known for harnessing data science to track everything from food safety to food waste. But the chain, which boasts more than 80 units, is careful of embracing technology at the expense of guest and customer interactions.

    “We recognize that the future of retail is moving into a space that shifts between hyper convenient and hyper experiential,” Famous says. “As a result, we are striving to create an atmosphere that allows us to operate successfully through this change, while still improving the human experience for both our team members and our guests. CAVA’s Pickup By Car experience blends our digital and physical experiences in a seamless way and exemplifies how we think about the notion of enhancing connection through digital, not replacing it.”