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10/27/2021

NACS Show Rewind: Why C-stores Should Take a Closer Look at Drive-Thru & Curbside Service

Session points to best practices from innovation leaders like Burger King and Starbucks.
Drive-thru stock image

CHICAGO — Drive-thru and curbside service are the next big thing in convenience stores — or should be, according to an education session at the recent 2021 NACS Show hosted by Howland Blackiston, principal at foodservice consulting and design firm King-Casey.

Only 14 percent of c-store operators plan to add drive-thru in the next few years. Those who aren't are leaving big profits on the table, according to Blackiston.

"Just having food and beverage programs is not enough to compete with the convenience of drive-thru and off-premise service being offered by QSRs," he said during the session entitled "The Convenience of Drive-Thru: Are C-Stores Asleep at the Wheel?"

​​​​​​Blackiston outlined a series of best practices from innovation leaders like Starbucks, which has added hundreds of thousands of dollars to its bottom line thanks to its drive-thru service.

Additionally, successful quick-service restaurants (QSRs) have shown a willingness to invest in their drive-thru capability and take the time to do it right, while embracing continuous improvement, he said. For example, Chick-fil-A uses a common technique called "line busting," where employees are sent out into the lot to help manage the flow of traffic by taking orders in real time on a tablet or similar device.

Other QSR chains are leveraging technology and innovating with designs that reimagine indoor and outdoor spaces. Blackiston pointed to Burger King introducing a multi-lane concept with a kitchen/dining room space overlooking the drive-thru, and Starbucks launching facial recognition technology that allows its baristas to connect visually with drive-thru customers in a way that strengthens the relationship.

The King-Casey executive is also a fan of implementing a "zone communications" strategy in drive-thru concepts. "There may be as many as six to eight zones, and each one is an opportunity to communicate with the customer in the right way," he explained.

The entry zone is a space where passing motorists only have two seconds to absorb a message, so signage has to be quick and easy to read from a distance.

The pre-order zone, placed just prior to the main menuboard, is an opportunity to influence decision making. Research shows more than half of customers don't know what they will order upon entering a drive-thru, creating opportunities to promote limited-time offers or a deal on combo meals.

The 2021 NACS Show took place Oct. 5-8 at McCormick Place in Chicago.