While fast food chains are modernizing the drive-thru, fast casuals are adding pickup windows to better streamline mobile ordering and delivery.
That's because customer expectations regarding speed of service are as high as they have ever been, T3 President Ben Gaddis said. Customers are comparing interactions with retailers and restaurants to whether or not they are better than Amazon, Uber Eats or other online-based companies, he said, adding pressure to get orders out faster.
"Drive-thru will look very different and be less oriented toward customers, and more for delivery drivers," Gaddis said.
Restaurants have started to decrease in size and reorient themselves to focus more on off-premise operations as a result, he said.
For fast casuals like Chipotle, Cava and Blaze Pizza, that means testing drive-thru pickup windows. Many other chains have been expanding into drive-thru as well, including Starbucks, The Habit Burger, Panera and Panda Express.
Adding drive-thrus can be quite lucrative. Starbucks, which added drive-thrus to 80% of its new U.S. cafes in fiscal year 2018, said that drive-thrus have outperformed stores without them and drive-thru and mobile orders now made up over half of all of its orders during the last fiscal year.
Chipotle continues roll out new Chipotlanes to a few dozen locations and plans to ramp up the pilot program later in the year. These lanes allow customers to order and pre-pay online and pickup at a designated time while providing another way for the company to maximize efficiencies of its second make lines, which have been rolling out across its system, to process digital orders without disrupting in-store traffic.
"These restaurants are a great extension of our digital system as they help increase convenience and access to Chipotle for customers looking to pick up digital orders without getting out of their cars," Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol said during an April earnings call with investors.
Cava plans to open five pick-up by car locations this year, according to Forbes. It most recently opened on such location in Maryland, where guests can use the Pick-Up By Car option on the restaurant’s app or website.
Blaze is set to open five "Blaze-Thrus" this year, Blaze Pizza SVP of Development Robert Kluger told Restaurant Dive. Much like Chipotle and Cava, Blaze customers will be able to order ahead online and pick up their orders at a designated time without getting out of their cars, Kluger said.
"Pickup windows will become a huge part of what we do," he said.
Its first of these "Blaze-Thrus" opened in Michigan in May. Blaze Pizza Michigan Franchise Group is operating the drive-thru late into the night too, which gives the owner an edge over other late night options, franchisee representative Darla Bowen told the Morning Sun.
The drive-thru format ended up working out in Michigan because the location already had a drive-thru window and Midwesterners are used to using drive-thru, Bowen said. Ideal sites for Blaze Pizza are corner locations within multi-tenant buildings with enough space for a drive-thru, Kluger said.
Blaze-Thrus are not mandatory yet for franchisees, in part because it is still very difficult to find ideal locations. But once it's proven out, Kluger expects it to catch on.
"I think once the franchisee community sees the benefits of having the online pick-up window, everyone is going to want it," Kluger said.
"Pickup windows will become a huge part of what we do."
SVP of Development, Blaze Pizza
Fewer ideal locations available
Despite the benefits od pickup windows, sites that are ideal for drive-thrus, usually corners within multi-tenant buildings or standalone ground-up sites, are becoming harder to come by. Not all cities and municipalities are always willing to approve of a restaurant with a drive-thru, either. Take Boston, for example.
"Boston is probably one of the most difficult places in the country to get drive-thrus approved," Bialow Real Estate Founder and CEO Corey Bialow told Restaurant Dive. “One of the things is that it differs from town to town."
Municipalities have been largely against drive-thrus because of the backups that impact traffic. Bialow said drive-thrus for pickups only could be a solution to this problem, Bialow said.
"There has already been resistance [from townships], but I think [the attitude] needs to change to reflect how people shop today," he said.
With customers prepaying, they are coming at a set time and there is likely to be only one or two cars in the line, he said. These new versions of drive-thrus would also help reduce traffic since there would be fewer people parking in lots and walking in and picking up their orders, he said.
In the Los Angeles area, it’s not necessarily difficult to get drive-thrus approved, but it's very difficult to find ideal sites, Restaurant Real Estate Advisors founder Mark Chase told Restaurant Dive. Restaurants would probably have to take up a former drive-thru and adapt it, which has been Starbucks' model, said Chase, a real estate broker. Restaurants would have to go to the suburbs, like Riverside, to build a free-standing building with a drive-thru if they want something specific, he said.
Even with these complications over site selection, fast casuals will continue to push forward with their plans, especially as more and more transactions shift online.
"Drive-thrus fell out of favor a while ago [at fast casuals] because you just can't make [food] quick enough for a drive-thru to make sense," Bialow said. "But with the advent of apps where you could pre-order and prepay, it's finally making a big comeback."