Double drive-thrus, side-gig virtual brands and expanded outdoor seating will be must-have features for restaurants in 2022.
There was a time when a restaurant’s segment said a lot about what features a concept might have. A casual-dining concept likely had lots of dine-in seating, a bar area and, ideally, a patio and plenty of parking. A quick-service concept sought space for a drive-thru, and a fast-casual player designed restaurants for quick pickup.
But for the restaurant of the (near) future, operators across the industry will be looking to do it all.
Off-premise is expected to remain a high priority, and restaurants will continue to strengthen their digital and to-go service — even as they enhance and expand on-premise dining, particularly outdoors.
Operators will design kitchens to generate new revenue streams, like additional virtual brands available for delivery only.
They will seek to drive traffic with bigger and better drive-thrus, convenient curbside access or pickup windows or lockers — all the while still striving to offer warm hospitality to the dine-in guest.
Coming out of the pandemic, many brands invested significantly in enhancing their drive-thrus, creating dedicated lanes for delivery drivers and digital orders, like Chipotle Mexican Grill’s Chipotlanes, Burger King’s “Restaurants of Tomorrow,” and KFC’s next generation prototypes. Even non-drive-thru concepts — at least prior to the pandemic — joined the car-service bandwagon, including Applebee’s and Sweetgreen.
Many say drive-thru optimization will be key going forward.
Though long a brand with a drive-thru, Lake Forest, Calif.-based Del Taco has been testing various operational changes that help the chain meet increasing demand for off-premises consumption, including a new drive-thru configuration.
“Our goal here is to provide the guest ultimate convenience in any way they want it,” said Kevin Pope, vice president of operations innovation at Del Taco.
The chain has been testing a new, Y-shaped drive-thru lane that allows two customers to order at the same time in separate drive-thru lanes before they are funneled into a single lane to pick up their order. That format is being tested at a single location in Southern California, but plans call for it to roll out to additional locations, said Pope.
Labor and production adjustments
Atlanta-based Arby’s, meanwhile, adjusted its in-store labor to support increased demand through the drive-thru during the past year, which helped the sandwich chain develop new processes to deploy those workers, said John Kelly, chief operating officer.
“That flexible approach allows our general managers to anticipate and proactively adapt to changes in the business,” he said.
More than 90% of Arby’s locations already offered drive-thru service before the pandemic, and order speed and accuracy have long been an area of focus for Arby’s, Kelly said.
“Separating the cashier and order-taking responsibilities, continuing to grow our competency around dual-lane drive-thrus to get orders more quickly to the production line, and bringing more technology to our highest-volume locations are some of the ways we are continuing to drive improvement in these areas,” he said.
The chain has accelerated the rollout of its “Inspire Dual” prototype, which features a dual production line and more efficient kitchen layout with space for future menu expansion, Kelly explained. The format is designed to produce sandwiches more quickly and efficiently for both on- and off-premises consumption, he said.
Pasadena, Calif.-based Blaze Pizza has rolled out a “drive-in” station that allows customers to order via mobile app and pick up their items at a drive-up window, among other modifications the chain made to its operations in the past year, said Ed Yancey, vice president of franchise development.
“Blaze quickly pivoted our business model to accommodate the new dynamic of consumer demand, and dramatically increased our curbside and third-party delivery options in a matter of just three weeks,” he said. “This operational pivot also influenced our growth strategy, as we have taken cognizance of the new consumer demands and are implementing them across our approach to grow brand presence in both existing and new restaurants.”
Many Blaze Pizza locations experienced a decline in traditional dining and pickup orders, Yancey said, but digitally based sales, which were in the single digits as a percentage of overall sales before last year, have soared to 35% of total sales, thanks to the increase in curbside pickup and delivery, he said.
Kitchen side gigs
By 2022, many full-service chains that plunged full force into the virtual brand world are likely to have proven the model as a way to generate revenue from existing kitchens.
Brinker International’s delivery-only concept It’s Just Wings is expected to reach $150 million in annual sales this year, for example, and the company is expanding its virtual brand portfolio. Other full-service operators to dive into the crowded niche include Bloomin’ Brands (Tender Shack), Denny’s (Burger Den and The Melt Down), Smokey Bones (The Burger Experience and the Wing Experience) and Cracker Barrel (chicken and biscuits).
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers recently unveiled the launch of three delivery-only brands that leverage many of the same menu items already available at Red Robin. The new brands — Chicken Sammy’s, The Wing Dept. and Fresh Set — join Donatos Pizza in the casual-dining chain’s delivery arsenal.
Famous Dave’s is also developing a value-positioned $5 burger concept as a virtual brand.
“Throughout 2020 our team focused on innovation, technology, and marketing to expand our off-premise service in all concepts,” said Jeff Crivello, CEO of the Minnetonka, Minn.-based casual-dining concept.
Famous Dave’s also expanded its menu into seven Granite City restaurants during the year, and opened a dual concept with Texas T-Bone Steakhouse and unveiled plans for its first drive-thru location, slated to open in Salt Lake City in June.
It is also expanding its counter- and line-service Famous Dave’s Quick ’Que format, with five locations planned for this year.
The goal is to leverage labor and ingredient efficiencies, in most cases using existing equipment. For some, the new virtual brands will help them fill a different daypart, or they may simply drive more volume, which can help lower food costs.
In a recent earnings call, John Miller, Denny’s CEO, said sales from the two virtual brands were highly incremental and leveraged labor during underutilized dayparts, driving sales not only at dinner and late night, but also increasing transactions during the week versus the weekends.
Taking it outside
Several operators have also committed to adding more outdoor seating going forward, saying the fear of indoor settings will likely linger.
Some brands are looking at units without any indoor seating at all.
Many are finding that adding outdoor seating pays off and patios are expected to be much more in demand.
Huntington Beach, Calif.-based BJ’s Restaurants Inc., for example, expanded its seating capacity by about 10% with the added outdoor patios, albeit some were temporary. CEO Greg Trojan said he expected the patios would serve the brand well this year with many guests requesting outdoor space for parties and events, in particular.
Expanding outdoor seating poses its own operational challenges in most markets. Rain, wind and cold weather can all put a damper on al fresco dining, but it can also be difficult for operators to replicate the experience they provide to indoor customers.
Operators that have added outdoor dining suggest making adjustments to ensure that outdoor guests can be waited on efficiently, without forcing servers to travel too far or having to add extra support staff.
“For anyone in fine dining who may want to offer outdoor seating, think about how to streamline service, and definitely set up service stations out there,” Kaitlyn Duke, beverage director at Bascom’s Chop House in Clearwater, Fla.
Likewise, Christine Wright, general manager and wine director at Hearth restaurant in New York City, which has enjoyed what she described as a “wildly successful” outdoor dining, has taken steps to streamline service such as placing self-service water bottles on tables, batch-mixing cocktails before shifts and cross-training servers to make drinks.
In addition, she noted that the appearance of the outdoor seating areas is also critical.
“If your outdoor space is beautiful and comfortable, you’ll more than make up for that initial investment in walk-in business alone,” said Wright.