Caribou Coffee has opened more than four dozen drive-thru-only locations since launching the scaled-down prototype in 2019. It’s also leaned into the off-premises channel at its more traditional larger-format stores—spaces that have always embodied the idea of a “third place” by fostering personal interactions and warm customer service. 

The company has adapted that people-first mentality over the past few years as more of its business flows through the drive-thru window. That means finding new ways to make the experience as enjoyable as possible, says Eric Caron, senior director of digital experience. 

One strategy involves reducing how often guests need to roll down their window. Caribou earlier this year updated its app with a new feature called Perk Code. Instead of reciting their phone number to employees, loyalty members check into the program with a three-digit code to earn points for their purchase. They also can pay through the app. With the order placed and paid for at the speaker box, customers simply pull up to the window, grab their drink, and are on their way. 

“Your car’s interior is kind of sacred,” Caron says. “Every time you’re rolling down the window, you’re saying, ‘OK, I’m going to let the snow in, or I’m going to let the heat in, or I’m going to let the rain in.’ So, it better be a worthwhile encounter.”

Further optimization could come in the form of designated spots for customers that order ahead and pick up at the drive-thru. The company also is exploring ways to enhance its headset technology with an AI-driven noise canceling solution. Coran says that could reduce friction and improve order accuracy, especially when there’s an engine revving or an 18-wheeler air-braking nearby. 

Caribou’s off-premises emphasis coincides with a significant development push. The company began domestic franchising in 2021 and has a pipeline of 300 units that will double its footprint by 2030.

Other drive-thru coffee chains also are charting aggressive growth following several years of pandemic-driven tailwinds. Scooter’s Coffee has added more than 230 franchised locations over the past three years, with AUVs increasing from $473,000 in 2019 to nearly $876,000 in 2022. The Human Bean expects its number of franchised units will have doubled since January 2020 by year-end. Its AUVs are up 30 percent on a three-year stack. 

Sustained strength in the segment has been met with a flurry of menu innovation. Caribou this summer added Raspberry Green Tea with Bubbles and Frozen Matcha with Bubbles alongside two espresso tonic drinks. Scooter’s recently debuted a proprietary energy drink and became one of the few brands in the space to focus on children’s beverages with a lineup of kid-sized options. 

“The competitive landscape is changing,” says Scott Anderson, chief operating officer at The Human Bean. “It’s not just coffee and espresso anymore. There’s so many emerging specialty beverages, like infused energy and the expansion of tea. Customizations are huge, and it’s no secret that more drinks are sold iced or cold within the entire industry.”

The company is testing boba to attract a younger demographic during the p.m. hours. New dayparts opened up for the business after COVID spurred a dramatic fluctuation in traffic patterns. With fewer commuters, Anderson says the morning daypart stalled while afternoons, evenings, and weekends skyrocketed. 

“We had a lot of large tickets and excessive transactions,” he says. “Fortunately, we’d already deployed handheld devices, and while we added a little bit of technology in the drive-thru, it was really just fine-tuning what was already in place without sacrificing the guest interaction.”

The Human Bean is less concerned with speed of service than those elements of the drive-thru experience that require a personal touch, he adds. It aims to foster a great interaction, or as the company calls it, “an authentic human connection.”

“Our systems, technology, processes, and equipment all make speed and efficiency a key result rather than a driving force,” Anderson says. “If you were buying a 50-cent drip coffee from a gas station, that’d be one thing, but you’re going out of your way for a specialty coffee. Guests deserve better than just speed. Employees do, too. It puts a lot of pressure on teams when you’re only focused on efficiency, and it almost gives them a license to treat customers indifferently.” 

Scooter’s calls the number of cars served in 30 minutes “smiles per half hour” to ensure top-notch customer service isn’t sidelined by a focus on boosting throughput. It has a goal of reaching 60 smiles per half hour during the 6 to 10 a.m. window at every store. With the average ticket increasing more than 16 percent from 2019 to 2022 and still growing, operators can drive over $500 in additional sales during that four-hour timeframe by earning just five extra smiles per half hour, says Jaime Denney, vice president of franchise operations.

“We’ve really leaned in and started having a lot of fun with that goal,” she says. “I have stores that show a 45-second window time or even a 30-second window time. We’re always doing the math with our franchisees to show them what a difference driving speed and smiles per half hour can do for their business. We pride ourselves on being friendly and want you to have a great experience—we also want you to scoot on through to the other side.” 

The company has an innovation lab at its headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, that replicates the drive-thru kiosk. It uses cameras and AI-developed simulations to examine every aspect of order preparation and identify opportunities for improvement. And while Scooter’s is exploring technology pieces that could unlock even more efficiencies in the future, Denney says everything it’s done this year has been organic. 

One successful initiative centers around “Acceleration Days.” Denney and her team give operators three or four weeks to develop a plan for achieving more cars on a designated Friday, then track each store’s performance and share major wins with the rest of the system. In some cases, she says Acceleration Days have resulted in upward of 40-plus stores celebrating new smiles per half hour records. 

“There’s nothing that we’re doing from a marketing perspective,” Denney says. “It truly is a local effort. Some stores invite customers to come in and help them set a new record. Others take the approach of saying, ‘Let us show you how fast we can be.’ It’s a really fun and organic way to do this, and franchisees absolutely love it.”

Beverage, Fast Casual, Fast Food, Menu Innovations, Story, Caribou Coffee, Scooter's Coffee, The Human Bean