On the Road and In the Drive-Thru Lane Again

On the Road and In the Drive-Thru Lane Again

On the Road and In the Drive-Thru Lane Again 1440 428 Jay Highland

I’m becoming an accidental SME on drive-thru experiences. Not necessarily because I’m part of a team of restaurant designers, though it helps. As it happens, I’ve been a nomad for over a month. A traveling road-tripper living state-to-state, happily making my way south from Ohio to the Carolinas, then north and west through the Great Smoky Mountains into Tennessee and Kentucky.

Still, you know, pandemic. I follow the advice of scientists and doctors. Wear a mask, social distance. Like the majority of Americans, I’m not interested in an indoor dining experience quite yet. But a fella’s gotta eat on the road, right? So… DRIVE-THRUS.

What have I learned? What’s really happening out there? Like me, everyone is going to the drive-thru. It’s the preferred option in 2020.

“When COVID hit and our lobbies were closed, the drive-thru shops saved us.” – Levi Hetrick | VP, Shop Experience & Real Estate at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts

An August 2020 Fast Company article leads with this bold statement: “Thanks to COVID-19, the drive-through as you knew it is gone.” But has it really changed yet? The data suggests upward movement for drive-thru business, per the Fast Company investigation: “According to one recent poll, 74% of Americans have visited a drive-through the same amount or more often than usual this year.” I can attest to this. Drive-thru lines (or “stacks”) are ridiculously long. Case in point: In South Carolina, I sat in a Starbucks drive-thru waiting for my mobile order for over 40 minutes. For a coffee I had ordered on my phone. In Louisville, KY, I waited in line at Wendy’s for a solid 30 minutes before my patience wore thin and I bolted.

So we’re waiting for our combo meals and burritos and lattes, longer than ever before. Is that sustainable? Many major QSR and Fast Casual brands are making significant strides to address the accelerated issue of the drive-thru. Everyone from Taco Bell to Starbucks to Shake Shack is thinking hard and investing in efforts to turn this challenge into an opportunity to differentiate in a crowded field.

To get some insider knowledge, I turned to a partner and friend with first-hand knowledge. Levi Hetrick is VP, Shop Experience & Real Estate at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and has responsibility for the chain’s doughnut shops and drive-thrus. His take was illuminating on several fronts:

“When COVID hit and our lobbies were closed, the drive-thru shops saved us. We were able to do as well (and in some select cases better) with drive-thru only vs fully open stores last year. There are a bunch of potential reasons for that (solid marketing, pent-up demand for comfort food, limited alternatives so guests didn’t mind the wait so much). We had already started an effort to rethink our drive-thru to enhance guest experience and improve speed of service, but this environment has compelled us to prioritize that work.

I have seen quite a few examples from KFC, Taco Bell, Burger King, and others on how they are completely rethinking the footprint of the building and drive lanes to enhance throughput, all of which is very compelling. That said, I don’t think anyone has really come up with a single solution for the various ways that guests experience a brand – in-shop (full experience), in-shop (grab-go), in-shop (mobile order pickup), drive-thru (new order), drive-thru (mobile order), and delivery. Thinking through the various customer journeys and how we can best meet guest needs across the spectrum of options will be a priority for me as we get into 2021.”

Photo courtesy of Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corp

Hetrick is right. Lots of effort is being expended by every major (and minor) QSR brand out there. In an August 2020 QSR magazine story, the trade publication outlines the efforts by Chipotle, Starbucks, and that perennial drive-thru favorite, Chick-fil-A. Clearly, better speed is the driving force behind all, but not the only criteria. As Chick-fil-A rightly understands, service and human interaction play a huge part in customer satisfaction. Says QSR: “It suggests delivering drive-thru experience remains a circular opportunity. There’s as much of a customer experience hook as greeting dine-in guests. And this is going to be doubly the case in a post-coronavirus world where more and more customers are pulling up.”

Our creative team at Chute Gerdeman has been dreaming up new ways for QSR brands to connect to new delivery techniques long before COVID entered our collective vocabulary. Many forward-looking brands have been challenging our creative minds to reimagine every touchpoint, every customer journey moment, every connection. Now’s the time to think big, simply because the consumer and the market demands it. Consider new approaches to real estate. Think of the parking lot and the asphalt and the concrete as PART of the brand experience, not separate from it. How do you answer the mobile order? The DoorDash driver? The walk-up window shopper? How do we rethink the entire footprint of a restaurant lot?

A lot of our work has been smartly thinking of components, or building blocks, that can be applied uniquely to wildly different locations and investment levels. There is no single answer because every franchisee has a different problem to solve. As designers, we force ourselves to think in scale and in systems, resulting in a flexible, modular kit of parts that will apply to any location or footprint. A new concept or prototype is always great, but how we execute breakthrough conceptual is the real trick.

Adds our friend Levi from Krispy Kreme:

“The same consumer experiences the brand in many different need states, so we aspire to meet those needs while creating a seamless and consistent view of our brand.”

As for me, I’ll keep paying attention to my first-person experiences, watching for how brands can literally reach into my car and deliver surprising service, speed, and quality, all while I keep hitting the road for my next destination. Cue Willie Nelson song.

For more on how QSR can invest in customer experience check our report, Queso Doesn’t Cut It

Want to see a drive-thru forward chain get it brand-right?
Take a closer look at Checkers/Rally’s

HOW WE THINK SETS US APART

A collection of insights research and observations across retail, restaurant, c-store and grocery. Helping brands provide a better experience for their customers. Enjoy.

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