COVID-19 helps new drive-thru options pick up speed

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Keep an eye out for Chipotlane, the new order-ahead, drive-thru option being rolled out by fast-casual chain Chipotle Mexican Grill.

While Chipotlane debuted pre-pandemic, drive-thrus as a food-delivery concept picked up speed as the spread of COVID-19 hammered in-restaurant dining and made takeout a vital alternative.

Indeed, other fast-casual companies have adopted or are exploring drive-thrus – traditionally associated with fast-food purveyors such as McDonald’s – including Panera, Shake Shack, Outback, Smashburger and Noodles & Co. (“Fast casual,” in restaurant-speak, denotes a quick-serve but made-to-order menu.)

Upstate New York now has a handful of Chipotlanes, near Rochester, Syracuse and Peekskill. But Chipotle pledged over the summer that 60 percent of its new restaurants will feature the option, where food orders are placed ahead using the company’s website or a smartphone app, paid for upon ordering, and then picked up at a scheduled time via the drive-thru.

Existing Chipotles also may be reconfigured to add drive-thrus, according to the company, which reports that sales at Chipotlanes open a year are 10 percent higher than peer locations without the service.

Aside from the pandemic, demographics and technology also are behind the fast-casuals’ embrace of drive-thru, according to Darren Tristano, CEO of FoodserviceResults, a market research firm in Chicago.

Tristano conducted the 2020 annual drive-thru survey for the trade publication QSRMagazine last fall, and presented some of the findings in a webinar hosted by the magazine last week.

While drive-thrus traditionally served a lone driver on the go, they became a pandemic lifeline for many restaurants – and consumers – when dining-in was unavailable or restricted.

And work schedules upended by COVID-19 also made dinnertime more important for drive-thrus, Tristano said. 

“The dinner day-part has emerged as a much stronger play for drive-thru,” he noted in the webinar. “We’re seeing higher check averages, larger purchases for bigger occasions,” such as family-size meals.

More than half of consumers surveyed for the QSR study indicated they would patronize fast-casual restaurants more if drive-thrus were available. And for younger consumers, drive-thrus with mobile ordering are the golden ticket.

According to Tristano while nearly half of consumers surveyed in the QSR study showed a preference for pre-ordering and drive-thrus, 61 percent of Millennials favored having that mobile option.

“It’s important to have a very good app if you’re an operator,” he said. “It’s real estate that you have to have.”

Sam Oches, editor of QSRMagazine, who indicated he has watched drive-thru development by fast-food operators for years, said the likes of Burger King and Taco Bell won’t be outdone by the fast-casual chains, and are “fortifying” their drive-thrus with multiple lanes and mobile ordering.

He also suggested some “drive-thru-adjacent” strategies for restaurants, such as a drive-in option for in-car, on-site consumption, similar to Sonic; urban walk-up windows, which Shake Shack has dubbed Shake Track; and ongoing refinement of curbside pickup service. 

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]

Categories: Business

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