Americans have rediscovered their love for the drive-thru

McDonald's drive thru
  • Fast-food chains are continuing to emphasize drive-thru improvements.
  • Drive-thrus were critical for chains when the pandemic closed indoor dining.
  • Now customers can eat inside again, but drive-thrus are still key for business after customers rediscovered it.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Restaurant dining rooms are reopening in most of the US, but Americans are still drive-thru devotees.

Major fast-food brands reported quarterly earnings this week, and executives made it clear that drive-thrus are still huge for business.

Yum Brands Chief Financial Officer Chris Turner emphasized Taco Bell’s drive-thru success over the last quarter to investors in an earnings call. “The drive-thru experience is an increasingly critical competitive advantage for our brands,” he said, noting that drive-thru times improved by six seconds year over year even as the chain served four million more cars.

Taco Bell has increasingly prioritized drive-thrus over the last 18 months and made some major changes to improve the drive-thru experience. To some customers’ dismay, last year the chain cut over a dozen items, including potatoes and and Nachos Supreme, to shorten wait times. The cuts paid off – in the third quarter of 2020, Taco Bell served 30 million more customers than in all of 2019, and each order was completed 17 seconds faster.

Read more: Subway tried to give away 1 million sandwiches to promote its new menu. Franchisees say almost nobody wanted them.

Starbucks similarly credits its drive-thrus with the chain’s strong recovery as pandemic restrictions eased. “We continue to see strong sales recovery in the rural and suburban areas of the business, and in particular drive-thru,” Group President, North America and COO John Culver told investors.

Culver said that Starbucks is focusing on decreasing drive-thru wait times for customers. The chain has been testing new strategies for keeping drive-thru wait times down, even as customizations remain popular and average ticket size is elevated. Baristas can take orders through digital drive-thru screens, which the company previously said are installed at about 3,800 stores. Finally, Starbucks is also renovating 150 US drive-thrus that are space-constrained to make them more efficient, Culver said.

McDonald’s also emphasized the importance of drive-thrus in an earnings call. CEO Chris Kempczinski began the call by talking about the “iconic” McDonald’s experience and referencing how the chain pioneered drive-thrus in the early 1970s. He touted McDonald’s improved drive-thru times, which have shortened by 30 seconds in the last several years, with a slight three-second setback this year. He says times are still improving, though hurt by the labor shortage.

Like its competitors, McDonald’s is also investing in drive-thrus to make them even fast and more efficient. McDonald’s corporate has been pushing franchisees to upgrade drive-thrus since 2019 after years of increasingly long wait times. Since then, many of the chain’s 14,000 US drive-thrus now have double lanes, which are key to reducing bottlenecks. McDonald’s is also still working with AI technology in drive-thrus from the startup it bought in 2019, Aprente. Kempczinski said that the technology is in ten drive-thrus right now.

The future of indoor dining is uncertain right now as the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads and some municipalities reinstate mask mandates, even for vaccinated customers. Drive-thrus allowed fast-food chains to thrive in 2020, and these companies are continuing to invest in the drive-thru.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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I went to Sonic drive-in and saw why the chain saw huge growth during the pandemic

Sonic
  • Sonic increased sales by over $1 billion during the pandemic.
  • Experts credit the chain’s drive-in model and broad menu for its success.
  • I went there to try out the food and drive-in experience.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Sonic’s drive-in model thrived during the pandemic as competitors closed dining rooms.

Sonic now hiring sign
Sonic drive-in sign.

I visited a Henrietta, New York location to try out the drive-in service that was so successful.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Sonic operates a drive-thru, dining room, and drive-in. The drive-in has 15 to 20 parking spots with their own speakers to order food, which is brought outside by the car hop.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

The drive-in area is under a covering that keeps it comfortable in hot temperatures or rainy weather.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

The drive-in section is just across the parking lot from the entrance.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

There’s also a small outdoor seating area.

Sonic drive-in seating
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Normally customers would also have the option of ordering and eating inside, but the dining room was still closed.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Each drive-in spot is essentially a drive-thru in miniature, with a sign displaying Sonic’s massive menu. Customers press the red button to signal that they are ready to order, and a worker will take their order through the speaker.

Sonic drive-in screen
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Most of the sign is a static display, but there is also a digital screen that shares information. In this case, it said that some ingredients were not available because of supply issues across the entire industry.

Sonic drive-in order screen
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

I ordered through Sonic’s app before I arrived, which gave me time to look through the extensive menu that experts say is key to the chain’s success.

Sonic app
Sonic grew during the pandemic.

Source: Insider

The menu has typical fast food fare – burgers, chicken sandwiches, and fries.

Sonic app
Sonic grew during the pandemic.

Unlike many competitors, it also has a wide selection of snacks including different types of tater tots, mozzarella sticks, onion rings, and soft pretzels. Analysts said that the comfort food not tied to a specific meal time may have also contributed to Sonic’s success.

Sonic app order
Sonic grew during the pandemic.

Source: Insider

Sonic’s drinks are a major part of its appeal to customers. Sonic’s president told Insider that 25% of all orders are drink-only, and there are 1.3 million possible drink combinations on the menu.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Source: Insider

There are so many options to add to a drink that it’s almost overwhelming. I finally went with a diet coke with cranberry flavor and lime.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Once you finish ordering on the app, check out and pay.

Sonic drive-in app
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

The app lets you know that the order has been accepted.

Sonic drive-in app
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

When you arrive, the app prompts you to say where you are parked. Each spot in the drive-in has a corresponding number.

Sonic drive-in app
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

The app gives updates about order status while you wait.

Sonic drive-in app
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Once you’re checked in on the app, you can also see your order status on the screen. The screen informed me when a carhop was heading out with my order.

Sonic drive-in order screen
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Carhops bring out food and drinks to customers waiting in parking spots.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

A server brought out my food and drinks within a few minutes, boxed up conveniently for transport.

Sonic drive-in food
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

The drinks, a milkshake and a flavored coke, were probably the highlight of our trip – and definitely worth a visit on their own.

Sonic drive-in drinks
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

Some people eat in their cars, but I chose to drive home because the snacks I ordered were fairly messy.

Sonic drive-in parking spots
Sonic restaurants have over 20 drive-in spots.

While it’s not the prettiest food in pictures, Sonic delicious comfort food options that are perfect for sharing.

Sonic drive-in takeout
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

After my visit, I’m not surprised that Sonic grew so much during the pandemic. It sells snacks and drinks that make a perfect treat any time of the day, and the drive-in has very minimal contact with other people for safety.

Sonic drive-in
Sonic was massively successful during the pandemic.

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Wendy’s launched a popup ‘Rick and Morty’-themed restaurant – see inside

Wendy's
  • Wendy’s opened a “Rick and Morty” themed pop up restaurant in LA this month.
  • The chain is also selling two themed drinks through August at 5000 locations.
  • The Adult Swim show has collaborated with Wendy’s before, and also has a history with McDonald’s.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.
A Panorama City, California Wendy’s was converted into Morty’s for the weekend of June 18 through June 20.

Wendy's launched a Rick and Morty popup restaurant exterior
Wendy’s Rick and Morty LA popup.

The popup had a special themed menu only available for the weekend.

Wendy's launched a Rick and Morty popup restaurant
Wendy’s Rick and Morty LA popup.

It was the only Wendy’s serving the limited edition Pickle Rick Pickle Frosty.

Wendy's launched a Rick and Morty popup restaurant
Wendy’s Rick and Morty LA popup.

Every detail reflected the theme, including all the packaging.

Wendy's launched a Rick and Morty popup restaurant
Wendy’s Rick and Morty LA popup.

Even employee uniforms were updated for the event.

Wendy's launched a Rick and Morty popup restaurant
Wendy’s Rick and Morty LA popup.

The restaurant’s drive-thru was transformed into an LED “Rick and Morty” experience.

Wendy's launched a Rick and Morty popup restaurant
Wendy’s Rick and Morty LA popup.

Giant inflatable characters tied the whole thing together.

Wendy's launched a Rick and Morty popup restaurant
Wendy’s Rick and Morty LA popup.

Coca-Cola and Wendy’s also released two limited edition drinks available through August 22: Mello Yello BerryJerryboree and Mello Yello Portal Time Lemon Lime.

Wendy's launched a Rick and Morty popup restaurant
Wendy’s Rick and Morty LA popup.

The show’s fifth season is integrated with the promotion. The drinks launched with the season premiere, and will stay throughout its run to the season finale.

Wendy's launched a Rick and Morty popup restaurant
Wendy’s Rick and Morty LA popup.

“We love finding authentic ways to connect with this passionate fanbase and are excited to extend the Rick and Morty experience into our menu, incredible content and great delivery deals all season long,” Carl Loredo, Wendy’s CMO, said in a statement.

Wendy's launched a Rick and Morty popup restaurant
Wendy’s Rick and Morty LA popup.

The popup seemed to be a success, with fans driving from long distances and waiting as many as seven hours to experience the drive-thru.

Wendy's launched a Rick and Morty popup restaurant
Wendy’s Rick and Morty LA popup.

Source: Ad Age

McDonald’s famously collaborated with “Rick and Morty” in 2017 to sell Szechuan McNugget sauce, but demand far outpaced supply and the promotion descended into chaos at some locations.

McDonald's Szechuan Sauce

Source: Insider

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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Starbucks’ embrace of viral social media drinks is infuriating some baristas

Starbucks barista makes mobile orders
Starbucks barista.

  • Starbucks is testing a new way for customers to order popular drinks from social media.
  • Baristas say the drinks are nearly impossible to make with current staff and ingredient shortages.
  • Starbucks says it chose the two initial drinks to reduce complexity.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Starbucks is testing a new way for customers to order popular drinks through social media, and some baristas are not happy.

The coffee chain just launched a limited test that will let some customers order the off-menu drinks through Facebook and Instagram, according to an internal memo viewed by Insider. The program spotlights a recent trend of customers ordering elaborate Starbucks drinks and sharing the recipes on social media, so others can replicate the concoctions. The program will at first be limited to two such drinks: the Pink Drink Remixed and the Moon Drink.

Insider spoke with four current and recent Starbucks workers, who said that the test could add pressure and complexity to their jobs at a time when they already feel understaffed.

The Pink Drink Remixed is a venti Pink Drink – a Strawberry Acai Refresher with coconut milk – topped with Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Foam. The Moon Drink is made up of a grande iced matcha latte and two pumps of chai. They will cost $6.25 and $5.55, respectively. The two drinks were selected to “reduce complexity but still test the function,” a Starbucks spokesperson said.

Some Starbucks baristas have spoken out in various outlets about the difficulty posed by drinks that get popular on TikTok and other social media platforms.

“Custom drinks from social media like TikTok are also increasing the need for labor. These drinks are getting more and more complicated,” one Pennsylvania supervisor previously told Insider.

Starbucks says the test could make things easier for workers.

“Testing a solution that gives customers and partners a way to easily order popular social media beverage customizations is just one example of our approach,” a Starbucks spokesperson said. “This test was created with input from baristas and the beverages selected for the test are not complex builds. The test size is intentionally limited in order to not impede lines or create complex beverages.”

As elaborate drink orders become popular on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, baristas acknowledged that tapping into those trends is a smart business move.

“They’re totally cashing in on social media viral drink trends,” one Starbucks employee in Seattle, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears of retaliation, told Insider. He said he is “livid” about the test.

“What they aren’t taking into account is the toll it will have on their baristas,” he told Insider. The barista said his store feels understaffed and overworked, and that the company should address more pressing needs like additional staffing, training, and updated store designs, instead of making it easier to order potentially complex drinks through social media.

Read more: Mutiny at Great Jones: How a cofounder war led every employee to quit Instagram’s trendiest cookware company

A Texas Starbucks worker of five years, Bailey, told Insider he quit the chain recently due to what he described as increasingly overwhelming demands.

“Now, with the way they want to do all these modifications, not to mention promoting it and encouraging it from customers,” drive-thru times will get even worse, he told Insider. The combination of drive-thru, in-store, and mobile orders made it impossible to stick to the standards set by corporate, he said, while growing wait times and shortages lead to angry customers.

The Seattle worker also said he worried that the program could lead to further ingredient shortages, which tend to lead to more frustrated customers.

“I haven’t seen strawberry inclusions in weeks,” he said, which goes into the base of the Pink Drink Remixed, one of the promoted beverages.

Customization has become increasingly crucial to Starbucks’ brand, especially as the chain relies on fewer customers who spend more money on drinks. In the second quarter of 2021, US same-store sales increased by 9% despite a 10% decline in the number of transactions. The growth was driven by a 22% increase in average ticket size as orders grow larger and more complicated.

“They have a ton of customization, and that’s not going away. They believe it’s a strength,” Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski told Insider in a previous interview. As most other fast-food chains are cutting menus to become more efficient, he doesn’t expect Starbucks to follow the trend. “Customization is much more meaningful for Starbucks,” than speed Kalinowski said, even if it means slightly longer waits.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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This is how Sonic increased sales by $1 billion during the pandemic, according to the drive-in chain’s president

Sonic
  • Sonic increased sales by over 20% in 2020.
  • The chain leveraged the drive-in to attract customers as dining rooms closed.
  • Analysts also point to Sonic’s broad menu as a reason for growth.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Sonic had one of its best years ever in 2020, with a business model that was in the perfect position to weather the pandemic – and even thrive during it.

Sonic sales boomed in 2020, growing 21% to $5.7 billion, according to Technomic and reported by Restaurant Business. The chain added over $1 billion in sales over 2019 figures.

Read more: Subway franchisees say a new contract forces them to sign away their ability to criticize the struggling chain

Sonic President Claudia San Pedro, who took over in 2018, attributed this success to the fact that Sonic is “an entire experience,” she told Insider. “Some restaurants are a transaction to fill a function, but Sonic is about the experience.” Customers can eat in their car at the drive-in, and order comfort food from a massive menu.

Drive-ins were perfect for 2020

Sonic drive-in parking spots
Sonic restaurants have over 20 drive-in spots.

Fast-food chains had a good year and grew drive-thru traffic substantially, but Sonic’s drive-in left it uniquely positioned to benefit. Each Sonic “has in essence at least 25 drive-thru opportunities and eating spaces,” San Pedro told Insider in a phone call.

Sonic’s restaurants are set up like typical fast-food locations, with a dining room and drive-thru lane. The notable difference is its line of drive-in parking spots, each equipped with a speaker and menu board where customers can order.

“In a traditional drive-thru, there’s only one place an order can be taken,” Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski previously told Insider. “That creates huge bottlenecks.” Some chains, including Chick-fil-A and Starbucks, are solving the bottleneck problem with mobile ordering stations, while Sonic got around the issue with dozens of drive-in spots.

Sonic already had many of the features that consumers wanted more than ever last year, Kalinowski told Insider. Customers “couldn’t eat in, but you could load up the family in the car and go to Sonic,” he said.

San Pedro similarly emphasized how important the drive-in experience was during the pandemic. The drive-in can act as a drive-thru, where customers simply get their food and leave, but it gets people out of their homes during periods of work from home and school at home. For example, San Pedro said that Sonic saw a huge jump in families eating lunch together at the drive-in.

A menu with variety

Sonic has a huge menu, with fast food staples like burgers and chicken sandwiches, but also snack foods like onion rings and tater tots not tied to a specific meal time. Kalinowski said the broad menu with popular categories made Sonic a popular choice at a time when many competing options weren’t available.

The drink menu in particular is massive, with a variety of sodas, lemonade, milkshakes, and other drinks with additional add-ins. San Pedro said that there are 1.3 million possible drink combinations at Sonic, and 25% of tickets are drink-only.

Ice cream sales were also a surprise area of growth, San Pedro said. They thought “ice cream might be more discretionary in a pandemic, but during stressful times you want comfort food,” she told Insider. Most of Sonic’s menu fits comfortably under a comfort food designation.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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I tried Taco Bell and Chipotle’s drive-thrus, and they’re two totally different takes on quick service Mexican food

taco bell drive thru
A Taco Bell employee delivers an order to a customer at the drive-up window of the restaurant on March 31, 2020.

  • I visited Taco Bell and Chipotle to compare their drive-thrus.
  • Though both sell Mexican food, they have totally different price points and wait times.
  • Taco Bell has a classic drive-thru setup, while Chipotle’s emphasizes mobile orders.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Drive-thrus have become more important than ever for fast food and fast casual restaurants because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Taco Bell

Fast-food chains have invested in drive-thru technology over the last few years, especially as customers showed that they prefer drive-thrus to other ways of ordering.

Chipotlane

I visited Taco Bell and Chipotle to see two sides of the very different Mexican-American food drive-thru experience.

taco bell

First up, Taco Bell has a classic drive-thru in the style of McDonald’s and other seasoned chains with a line, menu board, and windows for payment and getting food.

Taco Bell drive thru

Taco Bell’s app is easy to use, with the menu broken down into easily-understood categories. It is also searchable.

Taco Bell mobile ordering app

It also makes it easy to customize every item on the menu, which is a key part of the chain’s appeal.

Taco Bell menu app customization options

Vegetarians tend to like Taco Bell for the many meatless and vegan options, and the app smartly highlights those items.

Taco Bell mobile ordering app

Taco Bell has prioritized its drive-thrus over the past year and made some major changes as a result.

Taco Bell drive thru

To some customers’ dismay, last year the chain cut over a dozen items, including potatoes, to shorten wait times.

taco bell

Source: Insider

The cuts paid off – in the third quarter of 2020, Taco Bell served 30 million more customers than in all of 2019, and each order was completed 17 seconds faster.

Taco Bell drive thru

Source: Insider

I saw those changes firsthand during my Taco Bell visit. Though the line was at least ten cars long, I gave the name for my mobile order at the speaker and was holding my food in about five minutes.

Taco Bell drive thru

The chain has plans to further improve drive-thrus, with double lanes for mobile orders and bellhops to take orders on iPads. Both of these steps resemble Chick-fil-A’s setup and have been implemented at chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Taco Bell Go Mobile
Three Taco Bells in Oklahoma and Texas have added dual drive-thru lanes as part of the new Go Mobile format.

Source: Insider

Part of Taco Bell’s speed and efficiency is likely due to its embrace of drive-thrus and mobile orders.

Taco Bell drive thru

Every Taco Bell has two food assembly lines, one for the drive-thru and one for the inside counter.

Taco Bell drive thru

Source: NBC

Trimming down menus help workers keep both lines moving faster.

Taco Bell drive thru

Taco Bell doesn’t make many claims about nutrition or authenticity, but the drive-thru experience is reliably fast and delicious.

Taco Bell drive thru

I also tried out Chipotle’s “Chipotlane” drive-thru to compare.

Chipotle drive-thru

At Chipotle, I also ordered through the app, though this time I didn’t have a choice. Chipotlanes exclusively serve mobile orders.

Chipotle app mobile ordering

The app makes it easy to find a restaurant to order from, and it helpfully displays which ones are Chipotlanes.

Chipotle app mobile ordering

Chipotle has been working on Chipotlanes for a few years, although they’re getting more investment thanks to the pandemic.

Chipotle drive-thru

By early 2019, Chipotle had 10 US Chipotlanes, and executives told Insider that they planned to open dozens more, while also investing in digital ordering.

Chipotle drive-thru

Source: Insider

Chipotle’s digital sales exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, making up more than half of sales in 2020. For Chipotle, more so than for other brands, digital and drive-thru sales are completely tied together, because that’s the only way to order at a Chipotlane.

Chipotle drive-thru

Source: Insider

The app makes it easy to choose a dish and chose your protein, rice, and other options in the same order that you would inside the store.

Chipotle app mobile ordering

After ordering, you select a window of when to pick up your food. The windows are at least 20 minutes out in my experience.

Chipotle
Chipotle app.

The Chipotlane has no speaker or alternate windows. You just drive up to the single window and give the name associated with your order.

Chipotle drive-thru

If you go to the window too early, you might be told to come back in five minutes, which was what happened to me.

Chipotlane
Chipotlane.

Like Taco Bell, Chipotle works on an assembly line model, where customers move down the line of ingredients to choose what they want in a burrito or bowl. Chipotle locations also run a second assembly line behind the scenes dubbed the “digital make line.”

Chipotle

Source: Insider

Unlike Taco Bell, though, speed does not seem to be the top priority at Chipotle.

Chipotle Burrito

My food was good, and it was ready at the time the app said it would be.

Chipotle drive-thru

The different ordering styles show how Chipotle and Taco Bell are differentiating themselves in the drive-thru Mexican food space.

Chipotle Burrito

You can go into nearly any Taco Bell and leave with a combination of dozens of different menu items in under ten minutes. It doesn’t take planning ahead or much money – it’s an easy lunch or dinner most people can agree on.

Taco Bell

At Chipotle, on the other hand, it’s more of a commitment. A Chipotle order typically means 10 to 20 minutes spent in line, or a mobile order at least 20 minutes ahead of time.

Chipotle

Even in the drive-thru, Chipotle seems to see itself as a more upscale destination compared to Taco Bell, and assumes customers will be willing to wait for that experience.

Chipotle
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Chipotle’s digital sales exploded this year, making up over half of all orders thanks to new drive-thru locations

Chipotlane
Chipotlane.

  • More than half of Chipotle’s sales were through digital orders in the first quarter.
  • Chipotlane drive-thrus continue to perform well as the chain opens them at more locations.
  • Over half of new locations included Chipotlanes.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Chipotle’s digital sales more than doubled in the first months of 2021, making up over half of all transactions at the fast-casual restaurant chain, the company said Wednesday.

Online sales grew 133.9% in the first quarter compared to the same period last year, amounting to $869.8 million, the company said in its quarterly earnings. Just over half of those digital sales were order ahead transaction, meaning in-store and Chipotlane pick-ups.

The company’s digital sales surge came as the coronavirus continued to spread this year, forcing restaurants to close dining rooms and focus on take-out and delivery options.

Chipotle attributed much of its growth to Chipotlanes, the fast casual chain’s version of drive-thrus. More than half of the new Chipotle locations had drive-thrus this quarter, and the company says they “perform very well and are helping enhance guest access and convenience, as well as increase new restaurant sales, margins, and returns.”

Read more: Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol answers 9 questions about the chain’s future including the fight for delivery profits, menu innovation, and franchising

Chipotlanes have been in the works for a few years. By early 2019, Chipotle had 10 US Chipotlanes, and executives told Insider that they planned to open dozens more, while also investing in digital ordering. Chipotle’s digital sales exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, making up more than half of sales in 2020. Now, the brand is investing in building more online-order only “Chipotlanes” and opening new locations. CEO Brian Niccol said in an earnings call that Chipotle plans to more than double its locations.

Fast-food and fast-casual brands across the country are optimizing drive-thrus. Drive-thru orders have grown across the fast-food industry since the pandemic closed many dining rooms. McDonald’s, already a drive-thru heavy hitter with 25,000 worldwide, says that 70% of sales in top markets are drive-thru orders. Even salad chain Sweetgreen is jumping on the trend.

Read the original article on Business Insider

I went to Dunkin’ and Starbucks to compare their drive-thrus, and I’m convinced they’re after totally different customers

dunkin donuts covid drive thru mask
A Dunkin’ worker hands a coffee out of a drive-thru window wearing gloves and a mask as the Coronavirus continues to spread on March 17, 2020 in Norwell, Massachusetts.

  • I went to Dunkin’ and Starbucks to compare their drive-thru experiences.
  • Dunkin’ has more drive-thrus in the US than Starbucks and is consistently one of the fastest.
  • Starbucks has longer wait times but is adding double lanes and new tech.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Drive-thrus have become increasingly important for fast food and quick-service restaurants over the last year.

Starbucks barista drive thru COVID
Starbucks drive-thru.

Drive-thrus have been up industry-wide because they are perceived as a “safe way to use the brand” Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski told Insider. 

Fast-food chains have invested in drive-thru technology over the last few years, especially as customers showed that they prefer drive-thrus to other ways of ordering.

taco bell drive thru
A Taco Bell employee delivers an order to a customer at the drive-up window of the restaurant on March 31, 2020.

According to an Allegra Survey, 63% of respondents prefer to get their coffee through a drive-thru over going inside.

On-the-go orders, meaning drive-thru and pickup orders, made up 80% of Starbucks orders prior to the pandemic, Starbucks told Insider, and increased more than 10% over pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2021.

I decided to visit both drive-thrus to better understand the chains’ strategies.

Starbucks drive-thru
Starbucks drive-thru.

I frequently buy drinks from both Starbucks and Dunkin’, although I don’t really directly compare them in my mind.

I went to a Dunkin drive-thru in a building that was once a car wash.

DD drive thru

Dunkin’ has more drive-thrus than any other coffee chain in the US, with nearly 6,400 according to Allegra World Coffee Portal. About two-thirds of all US locations include a drive-thru.

This location has a typical drive-thru setup, with a menu board and speaker where customers can order.

DD drive thru

I ordered ahead on the Dunkin’ app for convenience, and because I wanted to compare the experience between the two.

I visit this location frequently, and there usually a few cars in line at any given time.

DD drive thru

Most of the building area is devoted to the drive-thru, while the actually Dunkin’ itself is fairly small. It seems like most people go through the drive-thru, and fewer actually go inside.

After ordering and giving my name at the speaker, the line moves through the covered waiting area.

DD drive thru

Dunkin’ has some of the fastest drive-thru times in the industry, coming in second place in 2016 and 2018, and winning the category in 2019.

Despite winning the top spot, Dunkin’ wait times were up 20 seconds over the previous year. The chain says it is adding On-the-Go drive-thru lanes to let customers with mobile orders bypass the rest of the drive-thru line.

My coffee, sandwich, and donut were all ready quickly. Within only a few minutes I was leaving Dunkin.

DD drive thru

Dunkin’ doesn’t have the drink specification options that Starbucks does, and it pays off in wait time. Lines are consistently shorter and I spend much less time waiting at Dunkin’ compared to Starbucks.

Dunkin’s food is also more appealing and served faster.

dunkin beyond

Dunkin’ has the advantage in food variety over Starbucks, with a wider selection of sandwiches, pastries, and bagels. 

A Starbucks drive-thru is a very different experience compared to Dunkin’.

Starbucks drive-thru

Starbucks has 3,900 drive-thru locations in about half of total stores.

The line is almost always long, frequently extending into other store’s parking lots.

Starbucks drive-thru

Starbucks isn’t included in all of QSR’s surveys, but in 2018 Bloomberg found the average wait time for the drive-thru was 4.44 minutes, one of the slowest in the industry.

The chain is working on updates, though, including taking orders through digital drive-thru screens and handheld devices for baristas to input orders on.

Starbucks smart screen
Starbucks barista.

Kalinowski points to how these newer drive-thru technologies can minimize wait times in drive-thrus. “In a traditional drive-thru, there’s only one place an order can be taken,” he told Insider. “That creates huge bottlenecks,” compared to having mobile stations where customers can place orders.

Like Dunkin, this drive-thru only had one lane that every car had to go through, but that could change in the future.

Starbucks drive-thru

Starbucks says it is designing new drive-thru ideas, including double lanes, drive-thru-only stores, and drive-thru plus curbside pickup locations.

For fairness, I also ordered a latte, sandwich, and pastry at Starbucks, though the food selection was far more limited than at Dunkin’.

Starbucks drive-thru

Starbucks employees told Insider that some stores are experiencing shortages of key products and ingredients including cups, flavored syrups, and baked goods, in addition to the widely-reported oat milk shortage.

Starbucks sandwiches are always disappointing for the time and money.

Starbucks drive-thru

For comparison, Dunkin’ sandwiches are $3.69 at my location, while Starbucks sandwiches are over $5. Dunkin’ also sometimes does two for $5 promotions, making a Starbucks sandwich hard to justify even if I preferred it.

Starbucks is more expensive and the waits are longer, but all the customization options make up for the difference.

Starbucks drive-thru

While Starbucks is working to make drive-thrus more efficient, it isn’t trying to be the fastest drive-thru around, Kalinowski says. “Customization is much more meaningful for Starbucks,” he says.

Starbucks and Dunkin’ each succeed at their goals to reach target customers, but they’re doing very different things.

Starbucks drive-thru

It’s hard to compare one-to-one because these two chains serve coffee, but they’re ultimately after different experiences. 

Starbucks is a coffee destination, while Dunkin’ seems to prioritize food at least on par with coffee.

I’ll continue going to both, although Dunkin’ is for days when I need to grab an iced coffee quickly, and Starbucks is more of a treat on its own.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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How wearable pods designed to keep spectators dry at sporting events came to be used by drive-thru workers at Chick-fil-A and Dunkin’

cfa distance
  • Under the Weather produces weatherproof pods.
  • Most customers were sports fans and festival goers, but it pivoted to fit around COVID changes.
  • Drive-thru and curbside workers at Dunkin, Chick-fil-A, and Olive Garden have used them.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

You might have seen them on your most recent trip through the Chick-fil-A drive-thru, on a plane, or at a kid’s sporting event. Under the Weather Pods are weather-resistant, screened-in structure that can be worn or sat in.

Rick Pescovitz designed the first pod in 2010 after he got the idea from an experience he had sheltering in a Porta Potty from bad weather during his daughter’s soccer game. The Porta Potty inspired the shape of the original pod, which was made based on a laundry basket with a steel wire structure, Pescovitz told Insider.

nevada soccer

The pods, which now come in more than 30 variations, were originally a big hit with parents like Pescovitz, and tailgaters, he said. Under the Weather began reaching out to crossing guards and ticket takers too, and business picked up in 2014. Since those early days, the company has sold a few hundred thousand pods according to Pescovitz

Read more: Chick-fil-A’s out-of-control drive-thru lines have it facing off against local businesses and battling lawsuits

When COVID hit the US in March 2020, it could have been disastrous for the niche company. Before the pandemic, 90% of customers were sports fans and music festival attendees, Pescovitz, said, and February through May was the busiest season. COVID essentially shut down all of the company’s usual business, and they were forced to pivot.

IntubationPodMinn

Peskovitz saw the need for PPE on the news and he thought, “we could do something like that.” Within four weeks Under the Weather had come up with a concept, samples, and the final product of the intubation pod, which provides extra protection for healthcare workers during one of the most potentially contagious procedures. Under the Weather donated and sold these pods to hospitals and EMTs.

Under the weather pods
Under the Weather Pods.

The wearable line has been the most popular since the start of the pandemic due to the rise of curbside pickup, Peskovitz told Insider. He says 25 to 30,000 sales can be directly attributed to COVID. Some Chick-fil-a locations use the walking pods for drive-thru and curbside employees, a deal that Peskovitz says has been “really good for us.”

Many people are “uncomfortable or too prideful,” to wear the pods, one Indiana Chick-fil-A employee told Insider. However, he likes them, saying “it keeps us dry, keeps iPads dry, blocks out the wind, and makes it more tolerable.”

NJ covid test

As drive-thru and curbside pickup continues to grow in importance, other brands are testing out the pods. Dunkin’ and Dutch Bros. Coffee have rolled them out, and they’re being tested at Portillos, Olive Garden, and Outback Steakhouse.

In the future, Peskovitz says he wants Under the Weather to grow sales to businesses and work with corporate chains directly, rather than finding interested franchisees to sell to separately. Private buyers can purchase pods directly from Under the Weather, or from Amazon, Dick’s Sporting Goods, or Walmart.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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Krispy Kreme exec says the chain’s drive-thru was a ‘lifeline’ during the pandemic

Krispy Kreme drive thru
Krispy Kreme drive thru.

  • Krispy Kreme’s CMO says drive-thrus were a key to success during the last year.
  • Drive-thru sales have been up across fast-food chains as dining rooms closed.
  • New Krispy Kreme locations outside of urban areas will have drive-thrus.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Drive-thrus have been vital to the survival of fast food and quick-service restaurants over the past year, and for doughnut chain Krispy Kreme, they were key to keeping business going during the pandemic.

“Drive-thrus were a real lifeline,” Krispy Kreme Chief Marketing Officer Dave Skena told Insider in a phone interview. Through most of the pandemic, many locations were drive-thru only, with dining rooms closed. The locations that already had drive-thrus up and running had a “structural advantage,” Skena said, and they were “key to keeping team members safe.”

Read more: Chick-fil-A’s out-of-control drive-thru lines have it facing off against local businesses and battling lawsuits

Skena says drive-thrus are definitely part of the chain’s future. Most stores outside of urban environments have drive-thrus, Skena says,and new locations will continue to feature them. Krispy Kreme sells itself as an “experiential retailer,” where customers can see doughnuts being made and smell them. So right now the company is asking itself “how can we being that experience to the drive-thru?” Skena said.

Fast food and fast-casual brands across the country have optimized drive-thrus over the last year as they became crucial in the age of COVID-19. Drive-thru orders have grown across the fast-food industry since the pandemic closed many dining rooms.

Drive-thrus have been up industry-wide because they are perceived as a “safe way to use the brand” Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski told Insider.

McDonald’s, already a drive-thru heavy hitter with 25,000 worldwide, says that 70% of sales in top markets are from drive-thru orders. Even salad chain Sweetgreen is jumping on the trend. Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell both notably slimmed down menus to make drive-thrus more efficient this year.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at mmeisenzahl@businessinsider.com.

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