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A pizza panini? Edible wrappers? The search continues for the ideal drive-thru menu item.

Visualize an Oreo cookie and you’ve got the prototype for the perfect drive-thru fare: A food that’s handheld, tidy, and familiar—but with a twist. All that, and it’s got what Greg Grisanti calls “dynamic contrasts.”

“It’s black-white, creamy-crunchy, chocolate-vanilla, sweet-salty. There’s all these different things going on in this simple cookie,“ says Grisanti, a research chef for Pierre Foods in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Now, extrapolate that, and look at a sandwich.”

Successful drive-thru foods involve not only wise packaging and quick prep time—speeded up in some places by the advent of online pre-ordering—but also often these Oreo elements: They’re easy for drivers to manage, contained enough to prevent drips, and they’re familiar foods, often with dynamic contrasts.

“Taco Bell’s most recent—their crisp wrap, something that’s very well contained and innovative and certainly can be eaten with the hand well—that’s the first thing that comes to mind,” says Aaron Noveshen, founder of Culinary Edge and president of Pacific Catch restaurant in San Francisco, when asked to name a drive-thru success. “And McDonald’s, which owns the breakfast category, when people have the least amount of time…Their McGriddle was great positioning, to have a sweet-and-savory product for breakfast.”

What’s golden at the drive-thru is “anything you can grab with one hand and drive,” Grisanti says.  Bread-based sandwiches, particularly burgers, are, as you’d expect, the all-time best-sellers here.

“You want to develop things that aren’t inherently messy, where ingredients aren’t going to fall out, where the bread, cheese, and sauce all melt together,” says Grisanti, who is quick to disclose that he worked on a panini program for Panera Bread Company from 1998–2000 and is nothing short of a devotee. “When I think of something that has everything, I think of panini. A panini is the perfect to-go food. And it just means ‘little sandwich,’ but has come to mean a pressed hot sandwich.

“It’s not about massive amounts of ingredients—just a highly flavored sauce, a highly flavored protein, and a minimal amount of cheese to bind it. It’s about the quality and flavor, especially the quality of the bread. Everything stays in neat. It’s hot; it’s portable.”

And his favorite panini? Italian with shaved beef, a little Havarti cheese, and a basil pesto spread. “I tend to go for the simpler things and letting the flavors come through,” he explains. “You could extrapolate that to anything—pizza, a sandwich.”

In addition to snappy taste and flavor contrasts, dashboard diners are looking for food that can hit the road without interfering with driving, messing up clothes, or sloshing and spilling on car upholstery. Close to one-half of respondents (46 percent) to QSR magazine’s 2006 Consumer Drive-Thru Preferences Survey indicated that their food choices differ when ordering at the drive-thru compared to when eating inside. And 63 percent said they want food that is easy to consume in the car.

Anything that’s bite-sized, is served in a cup, or fits a cup holder, possibly with a sidecar for dipping, will work while driving, Noveshensays. KFC’s recent Snacker product is quick and driver-friendly and with the right price-point to make it a convenient impulse-buy item.

Foods that aren’t easy to hold with one hand (salads), fall apart (some wraps), or drip (certain em­panadas) don’t necessarily cut it at the drive-thru. “In general I wouldn’t recommend a bowl of hot soup—unless it’s pureed,” says Noveshen. “Not that anyone has done this.”

KFC’s bowls, for instance, while a tasty product with layers of mashed potatoes, corn, chicken, cheeses, and gravy, aren’t meant to be car-friendly, but instead are geared toward internal sales, says Noveshen. Salads and chilis are also challenging, if not impossible, for drivers and riders. Drive-thru buyers who plan to eat in the car shy away from forks and spoons and other utensils, not only to stay clean, but also because they’ve got to keep a hand on the wheel and eyes on the road.

Today’s Dashboard Dining

In spite of the challenges and dangers of eating and driving, nearly half of those surveyed by QSR said they are “most likely” to consume food purchased at the drive-thru in their car. (Thirty-four percent said at home.)

Food that can be eaten while driving is very important to consumers—something the auto industry has keyed in to. Vehicle design has evolved to accommodate America’s penchant for dashboard dining, which began in the days of drive-in theaters and with the advent of quick-serve restaurants, when trays attached to cars acted as the first cup holders, followed by glove compartment with grooved depressions to (kind of) hold sodas and malts, much like an airplane tray, followed by primitive holster-like cup holders on doors.

Today’s cup holders are retrofitted into dashboards, armrests, and consoles throughout many vehicles (see “Cars and Quick-Service,” page 79) and the adequacy of these cup holders can be a determining factor for some consumers buying cars. Even baby and booster seats contain cup holders.

Some 62 percent of Americans have eaten in their cars in the past three months, according to a recent survey by the American Furniture Manufacturers Association.

Menu items that traditionally live in cups—smoothies, shakes—are, of course, ideal for the eat-and-drive diner. Shakes made with Oreos (ironically) are among the best-selling takeout items at Fatburger, an 85-store chain that sells freshly made burgers, fries, and onion rings, says Elaine Patel, vice president of marketing for the Santa Monica, California–based firm. “They obviously stay cold,” she says, “with hand-scooped, real ice cream, and they travel really well.”

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