Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill is opening a drive-thru, becoming what it says is the first casual-dining chain in the U.S. to have one.
The drive-thru is being added to a restaurant in Bowling Green, Ky., and is expected to be up and running in April.
The format typically reserved for fast-food concepts is part of the barbecue chain's efforts to become more off-premise-centric, said CEO James O’Reilly. It builds upon other initiatives like virtual brands and curbside pickup but is ultimately an entirely new way for guests to order.
“The view that we have taken is that each of our guest experiences and occasions needs to be more purpose-driven in its design,” O’Reilly said.
The drive-thru will look and operate much like a fast-food drive-thru. It will have digital menu boards, a pickup window, vehicle detection technology and headsets for staff. There will also be an area in the kitchen dedicated to fulfilling drive-thru orders, with a beverage station, prep tables and hot-holding equipment.
The drive-thru will offer two menus: Express, which will have items that can be prepared quickly, like sandwiches, combos and pulled pork; and Made Fresh For You, a selection of more labor-intensive dishes like ribs and family platters.
Express customers will move through the drive-thru like usual, while those ordering from Made Fresh For You will order and park in a designated spot while the food is prepared.
The menu will also offer the chain’s two virtual brands, The Wing Experience and The Burger Experience, which were designed with the QSR customer in mind.
There will be one employee dedicated solely to taking drive-thru orders, while back-of-house staff will flex in to prepare the food, O’Reilly said.
In addition to an added level of convenience, the lane could help boost sales at lunch and later at night.
“I do expect that drive-thru has the potential to be the most incremental during those shoulder time periods,” he said.
Provided that the lane meets expectations, Florida-based Smokey Bones would like to add one to as many of its 61 restaurants as possible, including new ones.
“We believe there’s significantly more off-premise opportunity for us,” O’Reilly said.
Drive-thru is by far the 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.
There are other full-service chains with drive-thrus, but they tend to fall under the family-dining category. Steak ‘n Shake and Frisch’s Big Boy are two examples.
Many casual-dining chains are also developing small-format locations, some of which include drive-thrus. Famous Dave’s, for example, recently opened a counter-service spinoff called Quick ‘Que with a drive-thru in Las Vegas.
Some fast-casual chains are opening drive-thrus as well.
All of these efforts are contributing to a blurring of the lines between dining segments coming out of the pandemic.
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