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Restaurants tap low- and high-tech solutions to smooth operations during the pandemic

Operators share the innovations that are getting them through these challenging times.
Chick Fil A drive thru
Photo courtesy of Chick fil A

“We expected to see this growth over a couple of years, but it happened in a matter of months,” said Aaron Clark, a senior project specialist for Chick-fil-A.

Clark, who oversees food safety systems for the quick-service chain, was referring to the rapid rise in drive-thru innovations. He made his comments while participating in a panel during a webinar this week hosted by CMX, a company that provides software platforms for the industry.

Drive-thrus were critical to Chick-fil-A sales pre-COVID, but the pandemic accelerated upgrades designed to enhance the customer experience. At many units, operators added lanes, installed canopies and extended WiFi capabilities to maintain safe but interactive contact between guests and employees during order and pickup.

“Taste used to be our No. 1 consideration,” Clark said. “Now it’s safe service."

But the No. 2 priority at Chick-fil-A is compliance, he added. And that requires higher tech solutions, including ditching paper in favor of digital. Safety protocols, end-of-shift sanitation checklists, training manuals and more are all on one online platform for easy access systemwide.

“We can do digital assessments at each unit and are able to show local authorities that we’re complying with the guidelines,” said Clark.

Checkers and Rally’s, another drive-thru-dependent chain, is also balancing low- and high-tech tools to meet pandemic challenges. “We retrofitted drive-thru windows with plexiglass and installed steel shelving beneath each for touchless pickup,” said Danielle Williams, the chain’s ops services manager, during the webinar.

With delivery orders increasing by 50% during the pandemic, Checkers had to close down a drive-thru lane at some locations to accommodate the influx of delivery drivers.

The chain’s payment solution is a little more high-tech. The drive-thru windows are equipped with wands that have card readers attached to their ends, allowing employees to execute contactless transactions with customers while social distancing, said Williams. And she is using a software platform for audits, safety checklists and data collection from job interviews. “The forms and responses of potential franchisees are all stored there,” she said.

Firehouse subs

Off-premise sales at Firehouse Subs already comprised more than 50% of orders pre-coronavirus, said Rich Goodman, VP of operation services for the chain. But health restrictions put Firehouse’s signature hot sauce bar and Coca-Cola Freestyle machines off limits for customers. “We had to figure out how to deliver the guest experience without those touchpoints,” said Goodman.

So, Firehouse expanded its Rapid Rescue to-go program. Customers order ahead online, get assigned a pickup time and grab their packaged food from a shelving system set up in the stores.

And guests who come into the stores can still get their Freestyle soft drinks—contact-free. They place the cup under the dispenser and use a smartphone camera to scan a QR code. That brings the customer to a screen with prompts for selecting and dispensing their drink.


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