Veteran store designer: drive-thru innovations stand to yield long-term benefits for c-stores and QSRs

FacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

New approaches to drive-thru service have helped c-store and QSR chains adapt to the pandemic—and they stand to yield big benefits far into the future, said Joseph Bona, principal & founder of Bona Design Lab, in an online presentation for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).

But as c-store chains seek to emulate drive-thru and curbside innovations by pure QSR operators, they will need to pay close attention to the effects of a unique set of site-related constraints, Bona told the audience in the Nov. 9 session for NACS’ “Crack the Code Experience,” a virtual event running from until Dec. 4.

“C-store sites, with their gas pumps and limited lot sizes and parking areas, are just set up differently than those for QSR-only operations,” Bona noted. “For example, if you add curbside pickup, you will lose even more parking. So it can be difficult, though not impossible, to add another layer of circulation onto our existing sites. The key is for each retailer to think carefully about whether drive-thru service is right for them.”

And as noted by Bona’s co-presenter Dan Munford, managing director of UK-based Insight Research, the massive demand for drive-thru service can create challenges for QSR chains in areas such as menu-planning, operations and staffing.

In fact, Bona added:  the huge increase in drive-thru demand has added an extra 30 seconds to the average wait time per person at some c-stores and QSRs. “Imagine being the fifteenth person in the line,” he  said. “From order to pick-up, that’s a lot of extra time.”

During their presentation, Bona and Munford showed slides and videos highlighting innovations by American operators such as Burger King, Starbucks and Shake Shack; the U.K.’s EG Group; Australia’s OTR (“On The Run”) and the DRIVU app in the United Arab Emirates.

While their 40-minute session focused heavily on drive-thru, the veteran retailing and c-store consultants also covered other ways in which global operators are catering to customers—in particular, maximizing consumer choice by giving people multiple ways to order and pickup food and other items, all on the same site.

In some Shake Shack designs, for instance, customers can use drive-thru lanes that are faster because they are exclusively for orders placed by mobile app; other same-site options include conventional drive-thru lanes or parking spots served by carhops. Meanwhile, both Starbucks and Burger King are experimenting with huge windows that allow people waiting in drive-thru lines to see more of what’s going on inside the building. 

“Why not celebrate the employees by using architecture creatively with more open windows?” Bona said. “You’re giving the drive-thru a sense of personality by having the employees be the hero. It’s a way to aesthetically and architecturally bring the drive-thru to life.”

Munford and Bona covered unusual approaches such as an OTR store in Australia that allows customers to drive through an entire building filled with vending machines, and a prototype Burger King design that lets customers pick up orders from a wall of clear-Plexiglas cubicles embedded into the side of the restaurant.

Moving forward, if the demand for such options continues at the present pace, it could translate into powerful opportunities for QSR operators and c-stores with QSR components, Bona said. “Perhaps they could have smaller sites that allowed them to fill in the gaps between restaurant locations,” he noted. “It would lower both their real estate and operations costs, and they would need less capital to build new stores.”

In rethinking drive-thru service, Munford added, the c-store and QSR sectors have shown an encouraging ability to adapt. Moving forward, he told the audience, they should continue to hone those approaches. “One of the big dilemmas for retailers who have drive-thru is finding ways to make it more efficient,” Munford said. “There has been a massive progression on that score already, and I am confident we will see further innovation in the future.”