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Real estate priorities beyond location

firehouse drive thru

As more fast-casual concepts see the volume benefits of a drive-thru, finding the right locations may get trickier.

For a fast casual to compete on speed with quick service, it needs to invest in a second serving line that is dedicated to the drive-thru and separate from the dining room operation, says Technomic President Darren Tristano. Outside, drive-thru lanes need room for cars to queue up, as well as space for preview boards, main menu boards, speakers, etc.—all of which requires more space.

According to Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics data, drive-thru business can account for 30% of sales at fast-casual concepts and more than 70% for QSRs, Tristano reports. But the one of the biggest challenges for operators hoping to boost volume with drive-thru sales is finding enough physical space for one.

“You have to get in early on [a location] that has the right type of layout and configuration,” says Rich Goodman, vice president of operations for Firehouse Subs. “Is there enough flow for cars so they are not stacking up and blocking the parking lot for dine-in guests? It’s tougher to find a drive-thru location.”

Only a fraction of Firehouse Subs restaurants offer drive-thru, but that has not stopped franchisees of the chain from putting in requests to open a drive-thru location, he says—if they can find one.

“They are coming to us, asking, ‘Can we open, can we open?’” Goodman says. “As more are having success with drive-thru, we are getting more and more requests.”

Firehouse had just four restaurants with drive-thrus when Goodman joined the company four years ago, and two of those locations were converted from quick-service restaurants that already had the windows. Now, about 35 of the chain’s 1,000-plus units have drive-thru operations.

“The units with them average probably 20% higher unit volume,” Goodman says.

To capitalize on the benefits of a drive-thru, Pie Five franchisee Billy Bajema looked for an endcap location in a shopping center in Yukon, Okla. In addition to physical space for cars in the parking lot, the endcap had additional square footage to set up a drive-thru order-fulfillment area in the kitchen, separate from the serving line in the dining room.

“We had the real estate to do it,” Bajema says. “We were perfectly set up for an opportunity to give it a shot.”

Finding space in urban areas can be even more challenging given limited physical opportunities and higher property costs.

Because real estate is expensive in Southern California, Starbird Chicken, a quick-service chicken concept in Sunnyvale, Calif., bypassed the drive-thru altogether and instead offers a drive-up service. Customers can order and pay in advance, and when they arrive, employees bring their orders out to their cars.

“Real estate is a dwindling resource. That might not be the case in Oklahoma, but it is in California,” says Aaron Noveshen, co-founder and CEO of Starbird, which opened last summer. “I think people continue to want convenience, but in California, building drive-thrus and getting a jurisdiction to approve drive-thrus is more and more difficult to make happen.”

A second Starbird location is expected to open early this year and will also offer a drive-up service for customers rather than a drive-thru.

“It’s a trade-off,” Noveshen says. “Using order-taking technology removes the labor on the front end and transfers a better experience on the back end. Better food is brought to your car with a smile and a thank you.”

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