Delivering Successful Fast Casual Drive Thru Service

A growing number of foodservice operators are turning to off-premise service options to enhance customer convenience and increase sales.

Nowadays it seems as if every concept wants to get into the off premise foodservice business, where their products are purchased on-site and consumed somewhere else. This trend includes a growing interest in drive-thru operations.

Casual dining concepts have been pushing car-side service, where consumers can phone in orders in advance and have it delivered to their vehicles upon their arrival. Several fast casual concepts have opened drive-thru service. At the same time many QSR restaurants are taking drive-thru speed of service and throughput to the next level by creating double lanes, double order boards and applying different technology to improve execution of the customer experience.

Even typical delivery concepts have been pushing pick-up business and in some cases have gone so far as to develop locations with pick-up windows that encourage customers to come get their orders instead of having the food dropped on their doorstep. When it comes to the delivery concepts, some customers may see the pick-up windows as drive-thru windows, and some even try to use them as such. But these are usually designed to be pick-up windows for orders that have been previously placed over the phone or the internet.

When looking at the evolution of the drive-thru and off-premise service system, one can easily conclude that it is all about enhancing customer convenience to increase sales. I highly doubt the latter comment will come as a surprise to anyone reading this blog. Driving sales by meeting customer preferences has long been the basis for most successful foodservice concepts and it will remain that way for years to come.

In the past, the developers of most fast casual foodservice operations felt that since these concepts delivered a higher experience level due to the décor, the efficiency of the kitchen design and a menu that was slightly better than most QSRs, customers would be willing to get out of their cars to enjoy it. Additionally, the inability of these concepts to deliver products that could be produced fast, kept fast casual concepts from jumping in the drive-thru service arena. Perhaps now as these concepts have matured, offering drive-thru service seems logical and offer the next frontier for sales gains.

It is not a stretch to say that the path many fast casual concepts have traveled has been no different than the QSRs in the 70's, when the drive-thru was first introduced. One word of advice I would give fast casual brands as they take this route, is to learn as much as they can from the bumps the QSR concepts took as they implemented drive thru service. A lot of history has been written in drive-thru service and foodservice operators looking to add this component should heed the past. Doing so will allow foodservice operators looking to add drive thru service to begin their efforts on more sound footing. In contrast, ignoring the past could result in developing a system that ends up delivering long pick-up window times and a poor customer experience. In other words, foodservice operators exploring this component of service need to avoid producing something that instead of being a drive-thru becomes a drive-in, where the car has to basically park until their food is delivered.

Indeed, implementing a drive thru system is much harder than deciding to actually have one. As such, the leaders of fast casual concepts should review all the operating parameters (the ps) and evolve them as necessary to enable success:

  • What kind of equipment platforms should you have?
  • What is the right overall place design (layout)?
  • What are the right processes and procedures?
  • What is the right people (labor) deployment?
  • What are the right products and promotions?

Delivering a good drive-thru experience should be done from the inside out; starting with the operations and working its way to the customer. An employee-centric operating design that enables the team members to deliver on this type of service, which is not very forgiving of production delays, is essential. A 10 second delay at the pick-up window can equate to a minute or more of total service time (in a typical QSR drive-thru line), due to the serial nature of the service mode.

Simply put: the speed of the drive-thru is directly related to the speed of production of any one item. And if you look at all the items together that make up an order, the foodservice operation will only be as fast as the slowest one. Failure to mind the production time can turn a drive-thru service system into a drive-in, minus the roller skate wearing carhops. There are certainly many other aspects of operating system design that will result in a better drive-thru service, but starting with the aforementioned idea, is a good start.

Although "drive-in" service is certainly an option to offer, proven by many concepts that play in this arena, aiming to design a "drive-thru" service mode, but ending up delivering a "drive-in" service level, could prove to be disappointing to the customers and disastrous to a brand.
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