Driving Sales Through Drive-Thru Service Takes Detailed Planning

Collaboration, communication and step-by-step strategies improve project efficiency.
Drive-thru stock image

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — To successfully boost drive-thru sales through restaurant remodels, foodservice retailers should focus on step-by-step planning and close collaboration, according to HFA Architects and Engineers' Steven Baker.

In "Reinventing QSRs — One Square Foot at a Time," an advisory piece for decision-makers in the fast-casual and quick-serve space, the architect and co-leader of HFA's quick-service restaurant (QSR) team notes that chains across the country continue to reconfigure buildings and sites for faster and easier pickup of online orders. However, this comes with significant challenges.

"Adapting QSRs can be a big undertaking," Baker wrote. "In our experience, these projects run most efficiently when all parties collaborate and communicate from the outset and when key questions are asked and addressed in the right order."

Up to 75 percent of QSR sales occur at drive-thrus, a trend partly fueled by the rapid growth of online ordering apps from brands like McDonald's, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A and others. At the same time, fast-casual brands like Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Sweetgreen are honing their approaches to drive-thru and pickup spaces.Some are experimenting with speech-recognition software to take drive-thru orders.

To capitalize on demand, restaurant operators need to rethink how their sites and stores function.

"For existing locations, the biggest trend is toward demolishing part or all of the dining room," Baker wrote. "This frees up the square footage needed to increase back-of-house/kitchen capacity and/or support more drive-thru service."

Some QSR brands are exploring prototype locations that eliminate dining areas entirely, such as Wawa Inc.'s drive-thru-only store in Morrisville, Pa. Additionally, HFA's QSR group has consulted with several restaurant clients on higher-capacity equipment that enables them to meet growing demand without requiring additional square footage.

Digital kiosks are also on the rise, as they allow more customers to use their phones to place orders and provide table numbers directly from the dining room, with no counter ordering needed.

HFA's role in restaurant remodels includes inquiring into technical factors and constraints, such as whether the client's proposed changes would require additional plumbing, electrical or grease-interceptor capacity. The company's engineers also communicate with municipal officials and inspectors throughout the permitting process. Municipal parking ratios tend to be an important variable.

"When restaurants ramp up drive-thru capacity, they need to avoid demising too many parking spaces, which could violate those municipally-established parking minimums," Baker said. "Our QSR team has years of experience in helping restaurants' legal and real estate experts sort through such questions."

It is also important to understand how protective lease clauses of fellow shopping center tenants may limit remodel options. A company that seeks to remove all windows and convert a location to drive-thru-only could need to get specific approvals from the landlord and/or co-tenants.

These potential obstacles related to utilities, parking ratios, lease restrictions and more should be addressed early, prior to the release of renderings and detailed plans for municipal review.

"At HFA, we're excited to be a part of the QSR world's successful adaptation," Baker concluded. "We also see broad potential to apply lessons from these projects to our grocery, retail and c-store clients as they pursue their own creative strategies in the face of rapid change."