Ramping Up Drive-Thru Sales Requires Meticulous Planning, Advises QSR Expert

HFA Architects and Engineers’ Steven Baker cites need to carefully consider utilities, parking ratios, lease restrictions and other variables when executing drive-thru-focused QSR or fast-casual remodel projects 

BENTONVILLE, Ark., Dec. 1, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — Step-by-step planning and close collaboration can greatly speed up restaurant remodels focused on boosting drive-thru sales, advises HFA Architects and EngineersSteven Baker (AIA, NCARB) in an advisory piece for decision-makers in the fast-casual and quick-serve sectors.

In “Reinventing QSRs—one square foot at a time,” the architect and co-leader of HFA’s Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) team notes that chains across the country continue to reconfigure buildings and sites for faster and easier pickup of online orders.

But “adapting QSRs can be a big undertaking,” writes Baker, who works with one of the country’s fastest-growing QSR chains. “In our experience, these projects run most efficiently when all parties collaborate and communicate from the outset and when key questions are asked and addressed in the right order.”

In today’s QSR sector, Baker notes, up to 75 percent of sales occur at drive-thrus, a trend fueled in part by the rapid growth of online-ordering apps from the likes of McDonald’s, Starbucks, Domino’s, Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell.

Meanwhile, fast-casual operators such as Panera, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Sweetgreen are honing their approaches to drive-thru lanes and pickup spaces. “Panera and Popeyes are even testing speech-recognition software—an AI called ‘Tori’—to take customers’ drive-thru orders,” Baker writes.

But to capitalize on the demand, restaurant owners need to rethink how their sites and stores function. “For existing locations, the biggest trend is toward demolishing part or all of the dining room,” Baker writes. “This frees up the square footage needed to increase back-of-house/kitchen capacity and/or support more drive-thru service.”

Some QSR chains are even moving ahead with prototypes that eliminate dining areas entirely.

One example from the c-store sector is HFA’s recent collaboration in Morrisville, Pa. on a drive-through-only store for Wawa. “The much-smaller buildings required for drive-thru-intensive prototypes can be built faster and at lower cost,” Baker notes. “This is no small consideration given today’s steep increases in construction costs and delays.”

In addition, HFA’s QSR group has consulted with several restaurant clients on higher-capacity equipment that allows these companies to meet growing demand without needing additional square footage.

Digital kiosks are also becoming more commonplace, allowing more and more customers to use their phones to input their orders and table numbers straight from the dining room—no counter-ordering required.

On restaurant remodels, HFA’s role includes inquiring into technical factors and constraints, such as whether the client’s proposed changes would require additional plumbing, electrical or grease-interceptor capacity. HFA engineers also communicate with municipal officials and inspectors throughout the permitting process.

Municipal parking ratios tend to be an important variable.

“When restaurants ramp up drive-thru capacity, they need to avoid demising too many parking spaces, which could violate those municipally-established parking minimums,” Baker says. “Our QSR team has years of experience in helping restaurants’ legal and real estate experts sort through such questions.”

In addition, it is important to understand how the protective lease clauses of fellow shopping center tenants could limit options for the remodel. “For example, if the plan is to remove all windows from that restaurant and convert it into a drive-thru-only location, the landlord and/or co-tenants may need to give their approvals,” he explains.

Potential obstacles related to utilities, parking ratios, lease restrictions and more should be addressed early—not after beautiful renderings and detailed plans have already been produced for municipal review, he notes.

“At HFA, we’re excited to be a part of the QSR world’s successful adaptation,” Baker concludes. “We also see broad potential to apply lessons from these projects to our grocery, retail and c-store clients as they pursue their own creative strategies in the face of rapid change.”

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SOURCE HFA Architects and Engineers