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.