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QSR Feature
A Faster Kind of Casual
The potentially negative effects a drive thru could have on a fast-casual concept has some operators wondering whether it’s worth the hassle.
A Schlotzsky's with a drive thru.

Walking into Moe’s Southwest Grill during the lunch rush of a recent Friday, I take to the back of the line and eye my surroundings. The quirky menu items (with names like Homewrecker, Joey Bag of Donuts, and the Funk Meister) and wall décor (featuring phrases like, “A soft taco is like a hard taco only more emotional” and “Nachos are a pyramid scheme where everyone wins”) merit a scratch to the head or two. What sort of burrito chain is this, anyway?

I move through the line, order the Fat Sam, and watch as my fajitas are carefully arranged per my customization—first the chicken, then the vegetables, then my choice of various ingredients. The assembly line of employees, meanwhile, spastically shouts at random intervals—a hearty “Welcome to Moe’s” to new arrivals, and a loud reiteration of the name of the fast-casual concept’s cornerstone menu option—the Homewrecker—every time it’s ordered.

I recognize that my initiation into the Moe’s brand is a successful one, having experienced the energetic and engaging environment that the concept instills in each of its 409 locations. But what if it had been raining that day, and instead of hauling across the parking lot into Moe’s, I was provided the option of simply driving through? According to Moe’s president Paul Damico, that version of my inaugural visit would have been a false one.

“People need to come in and experience the ‘Welcome to Moe’s.’ They need to experience the customization, they need to experience the ingredients, they need to experience the energy level in the restaurant and the fun and quirky names on the menuboard,” Damico says. “There is a lot of trial with the Moe’s concept because there are a lot of nuances with what we do and how we do it. The guests really need to experience the total concept.”

Damico’s concern highlights just one of the issues that surround the development of drive thrus in fast-casual restaurants: Fast casuals, more so than quick serves, are about the entire in-store concept, not just the food.

Especially as the economy continues to force brands into new revenue-earning operations, the potential financial benefits of a drive thru have operators debating whether it is worth the cost of straying from the concept.

Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina CEO Paul Mangiamele doesn’t think so. His fast-casual operation, which was founded in 2000 and includes about 80 units, is focused primarily on the high-value experience coupled with low-cost menu options, he says.

“[A drive thru] would change that perception of a high-value-for-price point,” he says. “You’re going to rob [the customer] of the opportunity to enjoy the hospitality, the energy, the look, the feel of the physical plant you have.” Like Damico with Moe’s, Mangiamele says customers must have a Salsarita’s experience, not just a Salsarita’s meal.

But while Salsarita’s abstains from letting franchisees build drive thrus on new locations—instead using carry-out and catering as out-of-store dining options—Moe’s has seven drive-thru locations, the first of which opened in 2004. Damico says it is not an operation that the brand is aggressively seeking but that the company does allow the incorporation of a drive thru on a franchisee-by-franchisee basis—with one criterion.

“I would not enter a new market with a drive thru,” he says. “I think in markets where you have a strong customer base and your brand is very well-known, and you’ve penetrated that market, the drive thru in a fast casual can be very successful.”

Some fast casuals have found that the drive thru is critical to the success of their franchise. Schlotzsky’s, for instance, is made up of about 60 percent drive-thru locations, according to Kelly Roddy, president of the 340-unit brand. The sandwich chain, which opened in Austin, Texas, in 1971, has been operating drive thrus since 1975, and the drive thru accounts for on average 40 percent of each location’s sales.

“It is a big part of our business today,” Roddy says. “As we grow, we prefer to grow with drive thrus because we see a significant difference in our average unit volumes when we have drive thrus versus not having drive thrus. The only reason we would open up a Schlotzsky’s without a drive thru today is because there is not one available in the trade area that we want.”

Damico says that in each of the seven Moe’s locations with drive thrus, the lane accounts for about 30 percent of revenue.

“When we see bad weather days, that number obviously skyrockets,” he says. “The trade off for us is that the average check suffers on a drive thru. We sit here with a little over $9 average check in our concept, and the drive thrus are running about $7.24.” He chalks up the drop in check averages to customers who skip on ordering a beverage in lieu of having one available at their home or office.

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