Drive thru has emerged as the smart expansion play in the wake of the pandemic, offering an off-premises channel that is safe from service disruptions and increasingly facilitated through technology like mobile ordering. In the last few months alone, fast casuals like Shake Shack and Chipotle—brands that previously eschewed drive-thru operations—have committed to major investment in drive thrus in the years ahead.
Now another brand that once seemed unlikely to dip its toes into drive-thru waters has pledged to do just that: Sweetgreen.
READ MORE: Inside the New Era for Drive Thru
The Los Angeles–based fast casual announced that it will open a new restaurant in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, in winter 2021 that has both drive-thru and drive-in elements. The drive thru will be for digital-order pickup, while the drive-in will offer guests a dedicated concierge and in-car dining. There will also be an outdoor patio for guests who wish to leave their car and dine on-site.
Other design components of the new Sweetgreen prototype that seek to enhance the traditional quick-service drive thru include rooftop solar panels, large windows that allow guests to see the kitchen and prep areas, and tactical wayfinding that helps create a seamless experience. Meanwhile, ivy-lined walls and a dynamic roof design for the car kiosk further incorporate Sweetgreen’s fresh, modern touchpoints.
A company spokesperson noted via email that the new restaurant builds upon loyal customers’ already very tech-forward engagement with the brand; indeed, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of Sweetgreen’s orders were placed through the company’s app or website. This prototype further removes friction from the ordering process, the spokesperson says. That’s helped along by details like multi-channel ordering, order sequencing, enhanced location management for store operations, and two-way communication for operators.
While Sweetgreen hasn’t publicly reported its performance during the pandemic, in October the company announced that it was laying off about 20 percent of its corporate staff because restaurants had not recovered from the early-pandemic sales decline.
“We have moved forward with reorganizing and restructuring our team so we can put our company on a stronger and more focused path to profitable growth,” CEO Jonathan Neman said in a letter posted to Medium at the time. “This will mean different things for different people—some roles will evolve, some departments will remain the same, and unfortunately, some roles will be eliminated.”
At the time, the company created a two-year roadmap that focused on accelerating growth in new markets, reducing menu and operational complexity, investing in store leadership, and enhancing the digital business.
“We need to reduce our investment in areas that do not directly support these objectives,” Neman said in his letter.
The new drive-thru design seems to fall in line with at least two of those objectives. It should help Sweetgreen enter more suburban markets, which the company spokesperson confirms is part of the plan, along with other new store formats supporting curbside, order-ahead, and hybrid operations.
The design also reflects Sweetgreen’s commitment to enhancing the digital business, opening up a new frontier for serving digitally placed orders. The brand previously innovated with its digital capabilities earlier this year when it announced its Collections platform, a digital-only menu that offers guests a list of menu categories designed to better steer their purchasing decisions when ordering online or through Sweetgreen’s app. Lists will be added and adapted based on seasonal items and availability, and will eventually include menu recommendations unique to each user.
“As we think about customers whose routines have been disrupted or changed, and what they’re eating, when they’re eating, and where they’re eating it has all changed, we really have been focusing on the digital experience and … trying to think about how we can offer the most compelling experience for our customers,” said Nicolas Jammet, cofounder and chief concept officer at Sweetgreen, when the Collections platform was announced. “Ultimately [we want] to create a more personalized and customized experience for each guest based on their needs.”