Operators Make Modifications to Meet Consumer Demands

February 3, 2021

Restaurant operators across segments are designing stores for the future based on consumer demand for multiple options for off-premise dining, from drive-thru to takeout.

Chains and independents alike are incorporating pickup windows and adding drive-thru lanes, including lanes dedicated to orders placed on mobile apps. Chain operators are also designing stores that can be tailored to meet the demands of consumers at individual locations, including some that have no indoor seating at all.

Several of the largest quick-service and fast-casual companies have unveiled new prototypes in recent months that encourage digital ordering and customer pickup, and the trend has even extended into the casual-dining space. Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill + Bar recently unveiled plans for its first drive-thru lane, which is being added to a franchised restaurant in Texarkana, Texas.

“Off-premise demand has been increasing for over a decade, with significant acceleration in the past nine months, and we anticipate continued growth in the channel,” Scott Gladstone, vice president of strategy and development at Applebee’s, told Nation’s Restaurant News.

He said the local Applebee’s operator, Apple Arkansas, had identified the market as having strong potential for off-premise dining, given the trends it had been seeing in its operating area. Likewise, other operators are preparing to respond with different store designs based on the consumer needs in each market and the variables of each individual location.

Louisville, Ky.-based KFC, for example, in November unveiled two next-generation prototype stores that could each serve different types of locations. One format would have no dining room, while the other would have a small dining room and an outdoor seating area, along with more options for contactless pickup of digital orders.

Nashville, Tenn.-based Captain D’s, meanwhile, is developing an Express design, offering no seating, with plans to open in the Atlanta area by mid-year. The design has a drive-thru window on one side for orders and payment, and a window on the opposite side for customer pickup. There are walk-up windows as well.

“The Express units are generally designed for areas with very high population density, with a lot of foot traffic and, maybe, a lot of bus traffic — just where there are a lot of people,” said Phil Russo, Captain D’s vice president of real estate, in an interview with NRN in November.

Other restaurant chains introducing new designs include Schlotzsky’s, which is also planning two new prototypes — Design 1800 and Design 1000, named for their respective square footages — both of which will debut later this year. Design 1000, which will not have a dining room, will have a dedicated two-sided drive-thru lane or a walk-up window for to-go order pickup on the other side of the building. The second lane in the drive-thru on the passenger side can also be used for curbside pickup.

Others planning takeout-centric prototypes include Chipotle, Burger King, Taco Bell, Sweetgreen, Burger Fi, El Pollo Loco and La Madeleine, with more announced almost every week. Checkers & Rally’s, long a leader in the drive-thru segment, also recently said it was testing stores with dedicated drive-thru lanes to handle digital orders. And Pokeworks is getting ready to test a prototype store with a “Cruise-Thru” lane that will only fulfill orders placed ahead through the mobile app or for delivery. It is also building dedicated pickup counters into all new stores, said Peter Yang, chief development officer and co-founder of the fast-casual chain.

Independent restaurants around the country have also been adding takeout windows that have proven to a be lifeline for some operators.

In Denver, Zorba’s, a diner that closed temporarily at the start of the pandemic last year, executed a remodel that includes a takeout window facing the outdoor patio seating area. The restaurant had already been considering adding a window to create a ghost kitchen supporting dinner delivery — it currently offers dine-in service only for breakfast and lunch — and it accelerated the plan after the pandemic hit.

“In some weird way, COVID gave us this opportunity,” said Karen LuKanic, owner of the restaurant, which is located in a pedestrian friendly neighborhood that attracts traffic to the window from the street.

The restaurant had been generating about 10% of its sales for off-premise consumption before the pandemic, but that share has since increased to 50%.

“It was our savior,” LuKanic said of the window, adding that she was fully committed keeping it in operation after the pandemic. “This has permanently changed our business model.”

Zorba’s has had success driving foot traffic to the window by displaying paper menus in a box in front of the restaurant, she said. The point-of-sale register is also just inside the window, making walk-up orders easy to manage. The location of the window just a few steps off the street also facilitates third-party delivery orders, LuKanic said.

In Detroit, acclaimed sandwich shop Mudgie’s also added a window for takeout, while converting its bar into a staging area for off-premises dining. The restaurant has been closed for indoor dining since the start of the pandemic, said owner Greg Mudge, out of concern for the safety of his employees and customers, but the window has generated a strong off-premise business.

“It is the heart of the restaurant now,” he said. “Until we are able to reopen and operate in a safe manner, the window will stay.”

To install the window, the restaurant simply removed one of the large, existing windows, and replaced it with a sliding window — “the biggest one we could find at Home Depot,” Mudge said — and applied a new coat of paint to the outside.

In Los Angeles, All Day Baby, an eclectic, Southern-influenced casual bakery/cafe that opened just a few months before the pandemic hit, has been doing a brisk business through its so-called Biscuit Window.

The restaurant encourages ordering ahead, but also accepts walk-up orders and fulfills third-party delivery. The window was originally used to offer specials on baked goods on different days — Donut Window day, Cinnamon Bun day, for example — but has since become an all-purpose takeout destination in the heart of the trendy Silver Lake neighborhood.

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