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Off-premise boom drives sweeping ops changes

The boom in takeout and delivery is quickly reshaping the way restaurants look and operate, a shift that could prove the most fundamental reworking of industry DNA since the advent of the drive-thru.

The changes range from small but impactful tweaks—setting up a station for the pickup of online and third-party delivery orders, a la Panda Express, Firehouse Subs and Zoes Kitchen—to what Dunkin’ Donuts has called an industry first: a VIP drive-thru express lane.

The moves follow a wave of limiting or totally eliminating seating and a doubling up of production lines, with one devoted to delivery and takeout. The second line is often purposely positioned away from customers so the employees aren’t distracted as they prepare delivery, takeout and catering orders. That second line for Chipotle can’t even be seen from the dining area.

The hyperactivity is just the start of the industry’s determined effort to catch up with the surge in sales of orders for off-premise consumption. Each new restaurant provides an opportunity to adapt.

“We’ll have a chance working from scratch to incorporate some things,” said Don Fox, CEO of Firehouse Subs, referring in particular to “a program that’s a little bit more ambitious and structural.” He declined to divulge details, but indicated that it will not be a format that eliminates seating.

In the meantime, he said, the fast-casual chain is looking at broader adoption of a tweak that was made in about 40 units the franchisor operates in its headquarters market of Jacksonville, Fla. The stores have been retrofitted with a station tucked just inside the door, separate from the serving line, where patrons who ordered and paid digitally can grab packed-up meals and go. The pickup area is also used by deliverers for third-party services.

The setup alleviates a pileup at the end of Firehouse’s serving line, which extends from the front of units toward the back. Previously, customers or deliverers picking up a remote order would bypass the customer queue and go right to the cashier’s station, where they’d cut in front of all the other patrons. It led to confusion, occasional friction and definite bumps in the flow, Fox indicated.

The service was advertised as Rapid Rescue, in keeping with the concept’s firehouse theme. “We did lift our online ordering incidence, certainly because we promoted it, but also because we made it more convenient for the consumer,” says Fox.

The designation of a pickup station appears to be Changeover 101, the first accommodation chains are making to their shifting business mix. Zoes, for instance, included a distinct to-go pickup area in the chain’s weeks-old new prototype.

Panda Express’ 2,000th unit, in New York City, similarly features an Express Pickup Area for orders that were placed online. A designated internal pickup station is also part of Dunkin’ Donuts’ just-revealed new prototype.  Bennigan's is putting its retrieval spot at the bar.

The stations are an echo of what Starbucks pioneered after its order-and-pay-ahead service brought a logjam at the coffee giant’s regular pickup area, Fox notes. The chain set up a separate area where digital customers would find their orders waiting. That was less than a year ago.

Starbucks subsequently went a step further and unveiled a takeout-only unit.

The next step in adjusting to takeout appears to be more sophistication in how orders are held until a customer or third-party deliverer picks them up. Little Caesars is testing a program called Reserve-N-Ready, whereby pizzas ordered digitally are kept in a heated, partitioned warming device near the service counter. When a remotely ordered pie is ready, customers are alerted by text. At the store, they input a three-digit combination or flash a QR code to unlock the Pizza Portal and retrieve the pie.

A Naf Naf Grill slated to fire up its ovens in April will feature a “takeout wall” where takeout orders are kept on racks for retrieval without any human interaction, says CEO Paul Damico.

The Wow Bao Asian chain has borrowed the automat-like holding technology of its sister concept, Eatsa. A section of its new store features 12 LED-fronted cubbies where meals are held until customers retrieve them.

The next frontier seems to be new processes for getting orders to customers while they’re still in their cars. McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Red Robin and Chili’s have all revealed plans to add curbside delivery with updated twists, such as incorporating geolocation technology to know when a customer has arrived. Curbside delivery is already figuring into Chick-fil-A’s sales mix.

The new iteration may be what Dunkin’ is sporting at its new prototype in the Boston suburbs. The store features what is essentially a drive-thru express option for remotely placed orders. Patrons can bypass the ordering window and zip right to the pickup pass-through. However, the order has to be placed via Dunkin’s app, and the customer has to be a member of the chain’s loyalty program, DD Perks.

McDonald’s has said that it also intends to change the drive-thru process to make it faster and more convenient for patrons who order and pay ahead.

The new Dunkin’ store exhibits a number of other concessions to the takeout boom, including a digital board that shows the status of orders, something already featured in Panera Bread Co. units, and an array of prepackaged drinks that to-go customers can grab.

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