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  • As more premium operators expand into drive thru, differentiating the experience is top of mind.

    Slim Chickens
    Fast casual Slim Chickens uses a focused menuboard to keep its drive-thru wait times to around four minutes.

    While historians and quick-service industry veterans alike still hotly dispute the exact origin of the drive-thru window, one thing is certain: The rise of the auto industry revolutionized the fast-food business. Quick-service restaurants evolved in tandem with Americans’ growing use and purchase of the automobile—from the drive-in experience of the early ’20s and ’30s to the boom in the ’40s and ’50s of brands like
    In-n-Out and Jack in the Box, which were specifically built around the drive-thru lane.

    Speed of service and convenience long reigned as the platform’s biggest attractions, and though that’s not likely to change, the growing demand for premium menu items has slowed drive-thru lanes at many traditional quick-serve establishments. That’s opened the door for more premium operators, as brands like Panera Bread and Which Wich have experimented with drive-thru units in recent years to compete for market share. It isn’t business as usual for these operators, however. Premium brands, especially startup concepts, must determine how to differentiate themselves at the drive thru and deliver the same high-quality—and often customizable—experience found inside the restaurant.

    “I think the connotation among the consumer base everywhere is that if you have a drive thru, you’re strictly fast food, and so they have lower standards and lower expectations,” says Greg Smart, cofounder of Arkansas-based fast casual Slim Chickens. The 14-unit chain features an “elevated drive-thru experience” at all but one of its locations, Smart says. “It’s been a challenge when it comes to branding and marketing to try to position ourselves as a fast casual that has a drive-thru window.”

    While the drive-thru window was a key consideration for Slim Chickens when the brand first launched in 2003, that’s rarely the case with most fast-casual brands or quick serves that are designed around menu customization.

    “When premium brands came to be, they didn’t do drive thru because they felt they wanted people to experience inside, and there was enough business,” says Juan Martinez, principal and cofounder of Profitality, a consulting firm for the hospitality and restaurant industry. “But as they’re maturing, that’s just the next frontier.”

    Though the fast-casual segment is the only restaurant category seeing overall growth, according to various industry analysts, those operators are not resting on their laurels, and the drive thru is the natural next step to fuel expansion.

    “[Premium brands] are seeking incremental sales. They realize [quick serves] generate 50–60 percent of their business in the drive thru,” says Howland Blackiston, principal at King-Casey, a brand and design firm with foodservice clients that include McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Subway. “They are losing business to [quick serves] because without drive thrus, they are less convenient for their customers.”

    The problem that many operators, especially those with premium concepts, encounter when they first jump into the drive-thru space is that the added business platform can often feel like an afterthought to consumers, Blackiston says. To combat this, they must approach factors like real estate, menuboard design, menu mix, training, and speed in the drive-thru lane with their brand identity at top of mind.

    When Subway first got into the drive-thru game, it was one of the first restaurant chains to offer a customizable menu lineup to customers who didn’t have the time to get out of their car. The right real estate was a key consideration in opening these drive-thru units, says Tim Miller, international project leader for Subway’s operations team, in an email.

    “Much like we do with nontraditional locations—like the locations in churches or theaters—we look at drive thrus as another opportunity to be able to provide a convenient way for our customers to order our great sandwiches and salads,” he says. “In most cases, the Subway brand has taken locations where there is already an existing drive thru.”

    The sandwich chain’s drive-thru unit count in North America is up to about 2,300, he says, and about 65 of those feature a customized kiosk system at the order station that removes the need for order-takers.

    Retrofitted drive thrus enable operators new to the platform to expand on a built-in system and test the waters, says Hala Habal, director of communications at Which Wich, a Dallas-based fast casual with one Texas drive-thru unit and two in the works, in Chicago and Tallahassee, Florida.

    “The second-generation space is obviously very appealing because it’s already set up for the drive thru, but also because people in that community are very accustomed to it being a drive thru. They come to it for that reason,” she says.

    The brand’s first drive-thru operation was born simply out of opportunity, adds Jeremy Cook, vice president of real estate and construction. When a franchisee approached corporate with the idea, executives got behind the initiative. It’s still a learning process for the Which Wich team, though, and the two units most recently approved for drive thru faced rigorous consideration, particularly in terms of traffic potential.

    “From a real estate standpoint, you obviously want locations with lots of car traffic,” King-Casey’s Blackiston says. “These need to be corner locations in a mall or building lots where free-standing restaurants can be built.”

    Traffic can come from many sources; Which Wich’s future Florida location will draw from nearby college students at Florida State University, while its Chicago-area unit will rely on the commuter crowd, Cook says.

    Impressive traffic potential was the main driver behind Boloco opening its one and only drive thru in Warwick, Rhode Island. The restaurant, which was once a Tim Hortons drive thru, is just off Interstate 95 and is also along a travel path for many of the town’s workers, says Erik Burns, the area director who oversees the Warwick unit.

    “It’s also restaurant row; there were a lot of dining options and retail locations already up and down that street,” he says. “And with a competitor like Chipotle across the street, we thought maybe those guests that loved the burrito were ready to try something a little bit more different.”

    The right real estate and consumers’ familiarity with an existing drive-thru location may get them in the lane, but it’s the premium experience that will ensure they come back, says John Miologos, executive vice president of architecture, engineering, and construction for WD Partners, a design consultancy that focuses on the consumer experience. When today’s leading fast-casual concepts like Chipotle emerged, they set a new precedent for how a consumer interacted with the fast-food environment with elevated, thoughtful, and welcoming design. “All those environmental cues help the consumers’ ability to give them permission to keep them in line,” Miologos says. “A fast casual would need to do something similar in the drive thru … if they’re asking for the same [wait] time.”

    Boloco incorporates its open kitchen, a hallmark of many customizable fast casuals, into the drive-thru process. The lane is set up so that guests in the car stack wait for their food alongside a large window that gives them a look into the kitchen and food assembly line where employees put together their order. “It’s a differentiation piece that separates us from the fast-food segment,” Burns says. “They don’t see stuff already premade; they see fresh food being made just for them.”

    It isn’t easy for all premium concepts to seamlessly translate their indoor restaurant experience to the drive-thru lane, however. Inside Which Wich sandwich shops, guests create a custom sandwich from a lineup of breads, meats, cheeses, veggies, and spreads using a brown paper bag to check off their selections. The process is so iconic for the brand that many of its marketing materials center on images of the brown bag. At the drive thru, the customer does not have the option of filling out a paper bag, and instead lists his selection to the order taker. “Our customers are very familiar with Which Wich, and they know what they want and how to order, so it hasn’t been an issue yet,” Cook says.

    Which Wich also had to pare down its options on the outside menuboard, but has included pictures to help consumers make decisions. The brand is also testing ingredient combinations for set sandwich selections on the drive-thru menu, so guests could order a No. 1 combo just as they would at a typical fast-food drive thru, Habal says.