Just Salad jumps on the drive-thru bandwagon

Freshly made drive-thru salads are increasingly becoming a thing. This fast-casual chain is ramping up growth in both urban and suburban locations with car customers in mind.
The first drive-thru Just Salad is scheduled to open in August in Livingston, N.J. |Rendering courtesy of Just Salad.

The growing Just Salad chain plans to open its first drive-thru location this summer.

The fast-casual has a new unit coming to Livingston, New Jersey, in August that will be the first to offer both dine-in and drive-thru ordering.

It’s a new format that the New York City-based chain plans to add into its development pipeline as it ramps up growth, said Caryl Scobbie, Just Salad’s chief concept officer.

With 81 units currently, all but six are company owned. Just Salad added 17 restaurants last year, and this year plans to open between 19 and 22 company units, mostly filling in existing urban markets with moves into adjacent suburbs.

Next year, the company intends to accelerate growth to 25 to 30 units, moving into some new markets, though Scobbie isn’t ready to say where just yet.

Just Salad is coming off a strong year of sales. With an average unit volume of more than $2 million, it’s among the top five restaurant chains in terms of sales growth, according to sister brand Technomic’s Top 500 data.

Sales increased 87.5% to $150 million in 2023, nipping at the heels of category competitor Chopt, which ended the year with 88 units and $159 million in sales.

But moving into a drive-thru format could also be a game changer for Just Salad, as competitors like Salad and Go, Sweetgreen and the new Greenlane train consumers to order fresh salads without stepping out of their cars.

“We offer healthy food as a great alternative to traditional fast food,” said Scobbie. “Having a full-on drive thru will target the soccer moms who want something healthy but who don’t want to go through parking and getting out of their cars.”

Just Salad’s drive-thru, however, will operate a bit differently than some of its competitors.

Scobbie said the full menu of signature salads will be available, and guests can make modifications to those salads, if they choose. But there won’t be a build-your-own salad option through the drive-thru. If guests want that, they’ll have to park and go inside.

“We’re concerned about the speed of service and menu real estate,” said Scobbie. “There’s only so much you can display.”

That’s also true at Chopt, which has two drive-thru locations for pickup only. Sweetgreen only has one drive-thru, or “Sweetlane,” so far, but guests there can build their salads through a digital channel and pick up through the drive-thru. But they can’t order at the drive-thru window.

The 140-unit Salad and Go, meanwhile, is an all-drive-thru concept, and guests can order either at the window or order ahead through the app or website. That means longer lines, but the chain boasts that salads can be made in less than 15 seconds.

Because Just Salad was born in the tight urban spaces in New York City, the new drive thru is efficiently designed, still allowing for all the in-house prep that comes with fresh salad concepts.

At Salad and Go, by contrast, produce is prepped in a central commissary kitchen and distributed to restaurants.

Scobbie said Just Salad has much to learn about operating a drive-thru, and this first unit is expected to offer insights. But the company has already decided to do more drive-thrus as the right spaces become available.

Of course, the demand for potential drive-thru locations has increased exponentially across the country since the pandemic, and competition is stiff.

“You’re hard pressed to find a drive-thru [location] now,” she said. “We’re having to get creative, looking at things like whether we can convert a bank building and that sort of thing.”

Meanwhile, the company has beefed up its real estate team, recently recruiting Andrew Marsallo, formerly of Shake Shack, as director of real estate, and growing the team from one person last year to three.

“More warm bodies to negotiate deals are better for us to help us grow,” said Scobbie.

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