For four years, Jeff Crivello has had a picture of a drive-thru on his desk in Minnesota.
The CEO of Famous Dave’s parent BBQ Holdings said he tore the image from a print edition of Restaurant Business. For a while, it was taped to his office window. He wanted colleagues to see what was on his mind when they walked by.
His thoughts: Famous Dave’s could work as a limited-service concept. Even though it was strictly a sit-down place back then, he had felt for a long time that its 6,500-square-foot restaurants were too big. He thought its menu of pre-smoked barbecue would translate well to a quick-serve format—and would be of much higher quality than most fast food to boot.
“We think barbecue is perfect for drive-thru because it’s already prepared,” Crivello said in an interview. And the format’s importance was only reinforced during the pandemic. “That’s right where the drive-thru became king, and you know that the drive-thru can withstand armageddon.”
The CEO’s vision came to fruition Monday with the opening of Famous Dave’s first drive-thru, in South Salt Lake, Utah. The restaurant in a former KFC is one of the chain’s new Quick 'Que locations, a limited-service riff on the main brand that Crivello views as the future of the company.
To get there, he said, 117-unit Dave’s had to rebuild its business model to fit the smaller footprint and different service style. One of its first moves was to acquire a restaurant that already did that. In 2020, it bought Real Urban Barbecue, a line-service concept in suburban Chicago, to learn the ropes.
It also had to get buy-in from its franchisees on the new format. “We wanted them to agree that, hey, this is the future,” he said.
It has succeeded on both fronts. A franchisee opened the first Quick 'Que location in Coon Rapids, Minn., last fall, and another followed in Las Vegas. Crivello said the company would spend this year learning from the new restaurants before looking to add another 10 or 15.
At about 3,000 square feet, the Quick 'Que prototype is about half the size of a regular Dave’s, allowing the brand to go places where it otherwise wouldn’t be able to. “We can cast a wider net,” Crivello said.
Quick 'Ques will have either counter service or line service, like a Chipotle. Some will have drive-thrus. But they will serve the same menu as Famous Dave’s sit-down restaurants. And Crivello believes the smaller stores can generate just as much volume as their larger counterparts.
“Certainly sales per labor hour we think is going to be much higher, and sales per square foot, obviously much higher, so much more efficient,” he said. A Quick 'Que needs about seven workers during busy times, compared to double that at a full-service Dave’s, he said.
One challenge will be finding the real estate to open drive-thrus—and convincing local governments to allow them. Some jurisdictions don’t like drive-thrus because they can cause traffic issues, or they see fast food as a blight, Crivello said.
“Everyone thinks their town is Paris, and they just don’t want that to be on every corner in town,” he said.
Dave’s might also add drive-thrus to existing full-service restaurants where it makes sense.
“Those boxes weren’t designed for a drive-thru. And so it’ll take a fair amount of construction to change them,” Crivello said. But, “There’s no reason why we can’t. We want to make sure that the consumer demand is there and that they make sense.”
Drive-thru is by far the restaurant industry's most popular off-premise channel. It accounted for 52% of to-go orders in 2021, according to researcher NPD, an increase of 4% over the prior year.
Famous Dave’s is one of a number of brands experimenting with the format. Fast casual Portillo’s recently opened a drive-thru-only location to great success, while Jimmy John’s and Smokey Bones are trying drive-thrus for the first time. And the vast majority of new Chipotle locations will feature its order-ahead Chipotlane drive-thrus.
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