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A case for more fast-casual drive-thrus

Don’t make me stop this car!
drive thru window order

At the start of the New Year, the editors of Restaurant Business posted online our predictions for the foodservice industry in 2016. While my predictions about what trends would resonate with families mostly drew on industry insights, I’ll admit there was a smidge of wishful thinking sprinkled in.

Between foreseeing an opportunity for fast casuals to connect with busy parents via more drive-thrus and asserting that fast-casual pizza chains would come up with some as-yet-unimagined approach to delivery, there was a common theme: convenience. And it’s a theme that already is playing out in our second magazine issue of 2016.

It makes sense: Around this time every year, Restaurant Business dedicates one issue to serving up a panoramic snapshot of the fast-casual industry, starting with an in-depth profile of a limited-service giant. This is that issue, and this year, that giant is Panera Bread.

Perhaps no operator has invested more high-profile effort into making the dining experience more comfortable and convenient for its guests than the bakery-cafe chain. Panera’s Rapid Pickup model—a linchpin of its much-ballyhooed Panera 2.0 high-tech reinvention strategy—is the perfect example. And if you follow me on Twitter, you may know that I’m a frequent user. For someone who typically finds herself squeezing in lunch between meetings, often after 4 p.m., the idea of pulling up to the door and running in to literally grab my order and go in mere seconds is the ultimate dining experience.

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, however. After work, when I put on my mom hat and think about what I’ll do for dinner with my husband and kids, Panera barely crosses my mind. That’s because, by the time I’m in my car for the half-hour drive home, I don’t want to get out until I’m in the warm haven of my garage—a fact multiplied by a thousand when the temperature drops to the unbearable levels typical of winters here in Illinois.

Which brings me back to the drive-thru: Panera might be a more likely dinner option for me and my family, and I would suspect other busy parents as well, if more of its units had drive-thrus. Same goes for Chipotle and other fast casuals.

I’ve said it before, the proposition of feeding my kids better-for-you, better-quality food is a strong draw of fast casual restaurants—just don’t make me get out of the car.

Yes, Panera does have some drive-thru locations—in fact, 25 percent of its bakery-cafes now do. But on my commute between the office and home, there is maybe one. For me, convenience means not having to think too hard—especially after a full day of thinking at work. Being able to find my way to a Panera drive-thru while my brain is on autopilot during the drive home would be a game changer. And the odds of that happening go up exponentially, when there are more drive-thrus in my path.

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