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.
Subway’s kiosk platform lets the brand push more suggestive selling with flashing limited-time offers, and allows guests to customize menu items. “The great thing about this system is that it provides the drive-thru customer with the same experience as a customer that comes inside the restaurant,” Miller says. “The kiosk walks the customer through the process and provides them with the images of the proteins, dairy, vegetables, and sauces. [It] provides the Subway customer with a strong level of familiarity and comfort.”
Fast casual Firehouse Subs, which opened its first drive thru in 2011, adapted its outdoor menuboards to push more combos, says Rich Goodman, vice president of operations services. Though the brand’s lineup consists of signature subs and salads, all food is made to order in front of the customer.
“Your drive-thru menu has to match your inside menu; you do not want a consumer coming through the drive-thru lane trying to find their favorite sandwich, and they don’t see it on the board and have to ask for it,” he says. “The only place we run into a little bit of a challenge where we can’t detail items is the self-service component.”
Inside a Firehouse Subs restaurant, guests can choose their own chips off a rack and create specialty beverages with the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. But at the drive-thru windows, the order taker must prompt guests by listing options for combo sides and drink options. Goodman says it was important for Firehouse Subs to still offer the Freestyle option at the drive thru because it’s a staple of the brand experience consumers expect.
“There are occasions you have to explain to guests the variety of flavors, even though we have merchandising outside to depict it,” he says. “The good news is that about 85–90 percent of drive-thru soft-drink users just take standard legacy brands.”
The corporate team at Slim Chickens recently adapted a cloud-based system for its outdoor menuboards to make changing up the menu mix quick and easy for unit operators. The items displayed change based on the daypart, with chicken-tender bundles and sides like mac and cheese and cole slaw more prominently featured in the evenings for the post-work crowd looking to bring home a family dinner, Smart says.
“On the inside boards, we focus more on our bulk catering-type menu items,” he adds. “Outside, those product sales were lower, so we decided to use that real estate for some more prominent placement of different desserts that aren’t as prevalent in the store.”
Beyond tailoring the menuboard and menu mix for the drive thru, premium brands must also consider what percentage of drive-thru orders are eaten in the car and what percentage are taken to a destination for consumption, says WD Partners’ Miologos. It’s an important consideration because the time it takes for a consumer to reach a dining destination can make food go cold; understanding that split will help an operator tailor packaging to lessen the decline of food quality, he says.
Fast-casual operators have yet to tap into specialty packaging for drive-thru menu items, but the potential for innovation is there. “Restaurants can positively impact their drive-thru business, … particularly with structural packaging that addresses the consumer demand for convenience and portability,” says King-Casey’s Blackiston. “A good example is the success of the KFC Go Cup. But most brands have not spent much time thinking about this opportunity. Innovative packaging designed specifically for the drive thru is a hidden gold mine to differentiate the brand, attract business, build loyalty, and delight customers.”
Then of course there’s the speed factor, which can sometimes be the single defining satisfaction factor for the time-crunched drive-thru consumer. Experts agree that the fast-casual customer may be more willing to wait for premium food, particularly if a brand offers environmental touch points like interactive ordering or a look into the kitchen. Still, a premium brand must set standards, often ones that are on par with, if not faster than, the in-restaurant process.
“Premium brands have to consider how long it takes to order,” Profitality’s Martinez says. “The typical order time for a fast-casual concept, especially newer ones, is a lot longer than traditional quick serves, although those are starting to get more complex because their menus are evolving.”
Slim Chickens, which tracks both the time it takes customers to order and how long it takes for them to get their food once the order is received, makes it quicker for customers to order with its new cloud-based technology and careful menuboard design, Smart says. The average wait time at its drive-thru window is around 4 minutes, he adds.
At Boloco, which averages 3 minutes per customer at the drive-thru window, all employees have the ability to take drive-thru orders so the system doesn’t rely on one person, Burns says. Sandwich players Which Wich and Firehouse Subs see slightly longer drive-thru times, at 5–7 minutes and 4–6 minutes, respectively.
“Our standard at drive thru is no different than our standard inside,” says Firehouse Subs’ Goodman.
Which Wich’s Cook says brand executives are still trying to figure out what they can speed up on its standard menu, be that beverages, combinations, or the ancillary menu items offered.
These brands may not be getting customers in and out as fast as a brand like Wendy’s, which has historically had the fastest service times in the industry. But if the percentage split between in-store dining and food taken off premises is any indicator, they are each finding success with the drive-thru platform. Slim Chickens reports about 46 percent of its total business happens at the drive thru, and for Boloco, its one Warwick unit sees 38 percent of its business at the drive thru.
Some of this drive-thru traffic is helping these brands reach particular consumers who flock to convenient dining options, experts say, particularly moms. “A lot of times with our line, moms of small children or moms in carpools find it a little cumbersome. The drive thru is a nice alternative,” Which Wich’s Habal says. “That demographic, we’re really capitalizing on.” She adds that the brand is also designing new marketing campaigns for drive-thru locations to attract the “on-our-way-home-for-dinner segment” and expand dinner daypart traffic, and there’s room for the concept to adapt and evolve with this new business stream.
Fast-casual drive thrus have an opportunity to really innovate the platform, says WD Partners’ Miologos, and the top performers will likely be those that find the best ways to differentiate themselves. “Fast casuals shouldn’t just succumb to what’s easy and been done in the [quick-serve] arena,” he says.
“I think the outstanding jobs [at drive thru] have yet to happen,” Blackiston says. He points to Starbucks’ portable, modular unit that debuted in Colorado in 2012 as the potential that drive thru’s future holds. The LEED-certified drive-thru and walk-up coffee shop capitalized on a hyper-local feel with a sleek look and small footprint. Blackiston says the chain is also experimenting with different communication channels and how to create the Starbucks experience at the window through sight, smell, and touch.
“They have truly begun to think outside of the box at the drive thru,” he says. “Very few [operators] have looked at the drive thru with real innovation, and as soon as the first ones do, people will start scrambling.”