Curbside service shifts into the fast lane

Delivery was supposed to be the big gainer of the pandemic. But operators have discovered that an old service coupled with new technology is what they’re seeing as a greater sales opportunity.
Curbside Tech
Illustration: Nikki Ernst

This is part 3 of 5 in a series about restaurant technology during the coronavirus pandemic.

When Buffalo Wings & Rings set out two years ago to rethink its operations and layout, it wasn’t aiming for a re-do tailored to the age of COVID-19 But as luck would have it, the resulting new prototype incorporated what the brand and restaurants of all stripes have discovered to be the breakthrough restaurant feature of the pandemic. Even concepts blessed with a drive-thru have leaned heavily on the option to offset lost dining room sales. And now that indoor service is returning, operators like Buffalo Wings are betting the alternative service is here to stay as a major sales driver.

Like QR codes, curbside pickup has roared back into vogue with new momentum, studded this time with technological enablers that raise its appeal to operators and consumers alike. About 40% of the Americans who’ve purchased takeout from a restaurant during the pandemic opted for curbside delivery, and about two-thirds of those say they’ll continue using the service even if restrictions are lifted and they can dine inside, according to Technomic research.

In the instance of Buffalo Wings, the commitment comes in the form of what it’s calling valet service. Customers pull up to an exterior station protected by an overhang and outfitted with a sliding window that serves as a pass-through, mimicking a drive-thru without the elaborate and costly construction. Indeed, the new building costs $400,000 less to build than the prototype it replaces, yet the chain expects the throughputs to be greater because of the off-premise accommodations. Staff members either pass the meal through the window or step out and put it in the patron’s backseat or trunk.

Buffalo Wings Rings

“‘Contactless’ is the buzzword of the moment,’” says Nader Masadeh, CEO of the 80-unit casual chain. “This is 100% contactless.” It’s also one of the efficiencies that the chain expects to shave three minutes off guests’ average wait for a meal.  Customers can already enter the model and color of their cars so there’s less time spent matching order to patron. And the channel is also how orders are being passed to delivery service drivers.

The next step, says Masadeh, is adding geo-location capabilities so the meal is waiting for a customer to pull up, instead of the reverse.

He declined to project the sales volume of the valet service, or what Buffalo Wings has generated in curbside business in older stores. But other chains have been more forthcoming about curbside stats, if not boastful. Much if not most of their off-premise business, and certainly their takeout volume, is coming through curbside. Delivery generates about 32% of to-go business for Applebee’s, for instance. Curbside contributes 68%.

Sister concept IHOP, which added curbside pickup at the end of March, saw the volume double within a week to 6.3% of off-premise sales.

Darden Restaurants, the parent of Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, experimented with both small-order self-delivery and third-party partnerships early in the pandemic, but backed away from both because the economics weren’t as attractive as curbside.  “We're really focused on this curbside operation and think that's the future for off-premise,” CEO Gene Lee told investors. “We believe that doing off-premise the way we do it, especially now that we've added this significant curbside business, is the way to go.”

Like Buffalo Wings & Rings, Darden is already looking at how that strengthened channel needs to be accommodated in future restaurant designs. “The big work that needs to be done is to think about what do we need to do inside the box to better support and stage curbside,” Lee explained. Simultaneously, he added, the company is looking at what technologies can enhance the service for relatively new online-ordering converts such as its Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen concept. Among the areas of inquiry will be how to upgrade the payment process, Lee revealed.

Because the channel has become so important and appears to be holding onto business as dining rooms reopen, “It does become a difference in the way we're thinking about designing restaurants in the future,” Greg Levin, president and CFO of BJ’s Restaurants, told investors in his operation.

Texas Roadhouse, a brand that voiced a definite leeriness about all takeout prior to the pandemic, is already reconfiguring some of its restaurants to better accommodate curbside. At those locations, an interior waiting room is being reconfigured into a curbside staging area where meals await a pickup.

More dramatic are the accommodations being made in some of the chain’s parking lots. At the branch in Kingston, N.Y., for instance, a large section of the lot has been converted into curbside pickup spaces. Customers order ahead via app or the chain’s website, setting their estimated pickup time, and then pull into one of the designated slots to retrieve the meal. They can alert the staff to their arrival by scanning a QR code posted at the head of the space, or send a text with their parking space designation to a displayed phone number.

Cracker Barrel CEO Sandy Cochran said her charge is currently looking at technology that will similarly enable in-car customers to signal their arrival and pay at that time via their phone or a tablet wielded by a server if the transaction wasn’t completed remotely.  

“Some of this functionality, it will be slightly disruptive as we inform the stores and do a little bit of training, but it will really streamline the operation going forward,” Cochran told financial analysts on Sept. 15.  She stressed that the retro-themed chain has prepared for the continued reliance on curbside and takeout in general by streamlining and redesigning its menu.

BJ’s is exploring alternate ways of maintaining a two-way communication with takeout customers, including SMS texting, according to executives.

Not just for full service

Curbside pickup is obviously a way for full-service places built without a drive-thru to provide the same sort of convenience and social-distanced experienced to their customers. Indeed, Denny’s has christened its versions as dine-thru service.

But even quick-service brands that have long counted on the drive-thru as a foundation of their operations are embracing the delivery of meals to customers’ car doors. McDonald’s Mobile Order & Pay app features a Curbside Pickup button as an option. When dining rooms were shut down across the nation, the burger giant adapted its service to accommodate truckers whose rigs are too big for the drive-thru. It set up special oversized spaces where the interstate haulers could park and have their meals brought to them.

Dunkin’ enhanced its app to provide more curbside capabilities and provide “a more sophisticated curbside ordering flow,” CEO Dave Hoffmann explained to investors during Q3. About 1,400 of its branches offer the service. On average, 2.4% of their sales came through that channel, according to the franchisor.

Domino’s, a delivery kingpin, advertised its new curbside pickup service during the pandemic. CEO Ritch Allison explained to financial analysts that the chain was looking for ways of attracting new customers while dining choices were limited, and research showed that traditional takeout service wasn’t drawing in those potential converts.

“That's not surprising, honestly, when you think about the fact that during the [second] quarter, many consumers were very reluctant to go outside of the home and to places of business,” said Allison. “We moved very aggressively to implement our Domino's car-side delivery. Over the long term, it's a great way for us to compete against the drive-thru that so many other [quick-service restaurants] have but that we have in a very limited number of in our U.S. stores.”

At the end of July, Shake Shack said it expected to have 50 units offering curbside pickup by the end of September. It hit the 77-unit mark with about two weeks left in the month.

The venture was announced at the same time the fast casual disclosed plans to open its first drive-thru sometime next year.  

Technology in the age of coronavirus

Restaurant Business is publishing a five-part series examining the way the industry has used technology to adapt to consumer changes during the coronavirus, and whether these changes are permanent. The package also features additional pieces, including a video and a podcast.

Part 1: Can ghost kitchens bring restaurants back to life?

Part 2: Virtual brands emerge from the shadows

Part 3: Curbside service shifts into the fast lane

Part 4: Mobile ordering takes off, thanks to COVID

Part 5: With health a top priority, restaurants race to innovate

Also see:

Video: A look at ghost kitchen provider Kitchen United

Tech is enhancing the restaurant experience for consumers … or is it?

Podcast: How Reef Kitchens is riding the wave of delivery demand

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


Exclusive Content


How Popeyes changed the chicken business

How did a once-struggling, regional bone-in chicken chain overtake KFC, the formerly dominant player in the U.S. market? With a fixation on sandwiches and many more new restaurants.


Get ready for a summertime value war

The Bottom Line: With more customers opting to eat at home, rather than at restaurants, more fast-food chains will start pushing value this summer.


Inside Chili's quest to craft a value-priced burger that could take on McDonald's

Behind the Menu: How the casual-dining chain smashes expectations with a winning combination of familiarity and price with its new Big Smasher burger.


More from our partners