Why more quick-service restaurants are going all-in on drive thru and walk up.

Sponsored by Ready Access.

In 1983, David Allen, a North Carolina-based restaurateur, was scouting sites for his second Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen location when he stumbled on an intriguing concept in a foodservice magazine: drive-thru-only restaurants. He wasn’t aware of any other restaurants operating on a drive-thru-only floor plan on the East Coast, so he traveled to Dallas to experience this format for himself. What he found was an extremely efficient model that could open new and unusual opportunities for his brand.

“I found a very small property in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that had previously been a convenience store,” he said. “This model makes it possible to use properties that were previously unknown or unusable for other operations because you don’t need as wide of a space. This means you can build on a highway or other great location with lower cost and lower overhead while still producing significant volume.”

In the 35 years since Allen opened his first drive-thru-only concept, Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen has grown to become an iconic Chapel Hill institution, and as a business owner, he has seen the cost-efficiency of the concept firsthand. Since location is a major factor in both the cost of real estate and the success of a restaurant, smaller footprints can help restaurants afford better locations to draw in traffic. Additionally, cost savings on the size of the lot can help offset other budgetary constraints, such as growing labor costs.

[float_image image=”https://www.qsrmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/sunrise-drive-web.jpg” width=”40″ link=”” caption=”Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen’s small footprint offers budgetary benefits.” alt=”” align=”left” /]

But is sacrificing the dining room really a wise tradeoff? Since an estimated 60-70 percent of all quick-service restaurant business comes through the drive thru, it may not be as big of a risk as some might think.

One reason is that though consumers of any generation appreciate convenience, younger generations take this more seriously amid the rise of more mobile and delivery options. As millennial and Gen-Z consumers become an increasingly large part of the U.S. economy, their preference for the convenience of drive thru and off-premises dining is likely to make these outdoor sales even more lucrative and offset losses from a dining room.

Restaurants can also save money by operating on a smaller floor plan in more ways than just real estate costs. Smaller floor plans also mean lower utility costs, too. Additionally, they don’t have to spend as much money on interior décor and front-of-house furniture. Staff can also be used more efficiently, since they don’t have to clean the dining room, messy front-of-house soda fountains, garbage cans, or guest restrooms. This means staff’s talents can be better used where they are most needed, and this can further reduce labor expenses.

Due to these benefits and growing consumer need for more convenient quick-service options, large national chains are building new concepts based solely on the drive-thru or walk-up window, too. Brands such as McDonald’s, Checkers, Starbucks, Andy’s Frozen Custard, Biggby Coffee, and Dutch Brothers Coffee have designs like these.

However, while eliminating these additional touchpoints adds efficiency benefits, it also means that a brand has fewer opportunities to make a good impression, so the drive-thru experience has to be spot-on. Allen says this places greater importance on the quality of the equipment and service at the drive thru, especially at the window. For this reason, Allen recently remodeled his drive-thru-only location to add more space at the window.

“We added 44 square feet to expand our pickup area, and it’s been leaps and bounds more beneficial,” he says. “The window space is now larger, and we have two Ready Access windows that make it so that we can see the customers better and make eye contact and converse more easily. The customers can also see into the space from the order point so they don’t feel so remote.”

Anna Ellis, sales and marketing manager at Ready Access recommends adding a transoms and sidelights to drive-thru windows to provide more light for customers and employees, as well as a friendlier feeling.

As more brands realize the benefits of the drive-thru-only layout, Allen says he expects to see more restaurants that operate on this kind of floor plan, and he plans to open more himself. “We’re looking at more opportunities for further expansion, and though we aren’t quite there yet, this drive-thru-only concept is the only way I would do it,” he says. “This is a model we’ve honed for 35 years, and I am completely committed to it.”

By Peggy Carouthers

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