In the Fast Lane

Fast food and other franchise concepts are seeing drive-thrus in their future.

By Devlin Smith

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Call it drive-thru mania: Many franchises are starting to see drive-thrus as natural additions to their stores. And we're not just talking about hamburger concepts--many other food and non-food franchises are expecting big things from drive-thrus.

For example, last December, 7-Eleven unveiled its Store of the Future Lab in Plano, Texas, a testing location that included a drive-thru. While the 7-Eleven drive-thru is still in the experimental stages, other convenience store chains are following suit, says Mark Godward of SRE Inc., a Miami industrial engineering firm offering efficiency solutions to full- and quick-service restaurants. "You're going to see many companies experimenting--and a lot of them succeeding--at offering their products via drive-thru," he says.

But even if there is a good customer response, a company's product offering may limit the addition's success. "For example, if somebody stops at 7-Eleven and wants to buy the newspaper for 25 cents, it won't be very profitable for them," Godward explains.

Food, on the other hand, provides more revenue to cover the cost of the drive-thru. "With food, typically the ticket is between $3 and $10, so there's a significant amount of money [to offset the] labor it takes to run the drive-thru," Godward says.

A somewhat unlikely quick-service chain that has found success with drive-thrus is Dunkin' Donuts. The company, which currently operates 1,400 drive-thru locations, opened its first drive-thru in the early '80s. "Everybody's on the go-they don't have the time to stop and park and come into the store," explains Ken Kimmel, president of the Randolph, Massachusetts, franchise.

What makes Dunkin' Donuts an ideal concept for a drive-thru isn't its signature pastries--it's the company's beverage offerings. "It's not so much about doughnuts as it is about coffee," Kimmel says.

To support its drive-thru business, Dunkin' Donuts is always looking for new products that work well out the window. "We will continue to find products that are easy to deliver through drive-thrus and easy to consume in cars," Kimmel says. "As we look at product development, we look at products that can be consumed easily with one hand, so customers don't have to drive with their knees."

"We live in a convenience society--convenience stores, convenient food, everything convenient," says Guy Chiatello, CEO and co-founder of Pickerman's Soups and Sandwiches.

Yet Chiatello found while the opportunity is there, capitalizing on it isn't quite as easy as just opening a window. Last year, a Pickerman's franchisee got approval from the gourmet soups and sandwiches company to build a drive-thru--since it opened, 30 to 35 percent of the store's sales can be attributed to drive-thru business. Yet Pickerman's has opted not to open any more drive-thrus. Why? "We don't feel we're providing the speed of service the customer expects," Chiatello explains, "so it's a question of doing it right or not doing it all."

Getting Set Up

So how does a franchise do it right? It's not just products that determine the success of the drive-thru--there are also operating systems that have to be in place. Order accuracy and speed of service are two areas eMac Digital LLC works on with its restaurant industry customers.

"Our kitchen management product, for example, focuses on getting the right food to the right customers as quickly as possible," says Blaine Hurst, president of Restaurant Technology Solutions, a division of Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois-based eMac. "In addition, we are working on monitoring speed of service, because one of the things we do know is that customers do not want to sit in a drive-thru line for too long."

The ultimate mission for eMac is to give the customers exactly what they expect from a drive-thru. "Customers are going through drive-thrus for it better be convenient," Hurst says.

Before a franchise can deal with how long it takes to get from order board to pick-up window, it has to address more pressing issues in getting the drive-thru built in the first place. To combat the traffic jams and noise that often accompany the addition of a drive-thru, many cities are instituting restrictions on new drive-thru construction. "You have to worry about the zoning in major cities, and whether they encourage this or not," says Warren Sackler, associate professor in hospitality service management at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. "It isn't like carte blanche that you just go build a new [restaurant] and get a drive-thru--you have to go through extra permitting."

The city of Fremont, California, for one, was concerned with the impact drive-thrus were having on residential neighborhoods--its city council has asked for a review of current city ordinances to clarify where the city stands on new drive-thru construction. While the city is interested in limiting noise for residential neighbors of drive-thrus, Fremont is by no means anti-drive-thru. "I don't want to send a message to the restaurant industry that we're not restaurant-friendly," says council member Bill Pease. If noise and traffic concerns are addressed, Pease says he has no problems with new drive-thrus coming to Fremont.

Even if cities work to limit the impact of drive-thrus on their communities, the public's need for convenience is definitely going to make these quicker-service additions more popular. "Just being able to drive up and get what you need and get going," says Kimmel, "is something more and more consumers in all our markets are demanding."

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