Drive-thru restaurants grow as COVID pandemic habits persist


Burger and milkshake giant Shake Shack Inc. entered the drive-thru market in late 2021 and now has six restaurants in the US operating drive-thru lanes, including in Vernon Hills – the chain’s first – and at Oak Lawn. The first figures show that the model is bearing fruit. Over the past four months, average weekly sales at each location have exceeded $80,000, which is above the overall average of $76,000. Drive-thru accounts for about half of these sales.

Amy Mills launched the drive-thru sandwich shop, Faye, after the model proved successful at both locations at her smoked meat spot, 17th Street Barbecue, in Murphysboro, Illinois, and nearby Marion, Illinois. Faye is also home to an all-day cafe. shop in partnership with Onyx Coffee Lab. Dishes such as bologna cookie sandwiches and summer peach salad are on the drive-thru menu; French toast isn’t included because it doesn’t hold up well, but Mills says it’s available on request.

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Faye is one of many drive-thru that has thrived during the pandemic as Americans grapple with health issues and capacity restrictions in sit-down dining rooms. They stand in stark contrast to the restaurant industry as a whole, which has been battered with 98% of restaurants across the country suffering a drop in sales. In the United States, drive-thru orders rose 20% from February 2020 to the same month in 2022, according to research by NPD Group, a global retail data firm. Not only has the trend expanded the designs of drive-thru food restaurateurs, it has also given rise to innovative building designs.

Among the many places to get a banh mi in Houston is the passage way at Saigon Hustle.

The seven-month-old spot was started by Cassie Ghaffar and Sandy Nguyen, in part to create something for busy parents who don’t want to deal with getting kids out of cars and restaurants. “It’s convenient and accessible not only to moms like us, but also to people unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine,” says Ghaffar. “We wanted to streamline and simplify how to get Vietnamese food quickly and efficiently and without compromising authenticity.”

The colorful restaurant is located on the site of a vintage gas station and has a 40-seat patio. The menu includes spring rolls, Vietnamese iced coffee, and a variety of build-your-own items such as vermicelli noodle bowls, rice bowls, and salads, with additions like barbecued pork and lemongrass tofu.

The restaurant is already on track to hit $1.8 million in revenue, originally set as a third-year goal. The owners are planning a second location in Houston, twice the size of the original location, with indoor dining and an expanded menu featuring pho and fried rice. “The pandemic has strengthened the concept and added value to it,” says Ghaffar. “We are already considering five planned sites.”

Tim Condon owns the Lonestar Cheeseburger Co. food truck in San Angelo, Texas, which has quadrupled sales during the pandemic to $1 million in annual revenue. Seeing his customers’ preference for convenient takeout and encouraged by the jump in sales, Condon is now betting on drive-thru. Omaha chef Neb, who also owns an American bistro called Angry Cactus in San Angelo, is building a seven-way drive-thru-only restaurant on five acres.

The enormous building, inspired by the Alamo, will stand 50 feet tall. Its seven lanes will include one designed for large vehicles, including 18-wheelers; others are aimed at delivery drivers and traditional drive-thru customers. There will also be a “clandestine route”, according to Condon, specifically for takeout alcohol. The restaurant will offer all items from the Lonestar Cheeseburger menu, including burgers, cheesesteaks and wraps, as well as ice cream, shakes and baked goods from an in-house bakery. Drinks will include margaritas, daiquiris and Davy Crocketts, a mix of Dr. Pepper and Jack Daniels named after the frontier hero.

The pandemic has also put fast-casual and fast-food chains in the category’s express lane. Among the big companies focusing on car-friendly locations is Taco Bell Corp, owned by Yum! Brands Inc. Its futuristic Taco Bell Defy in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, is a two-story drive-thru with four lanes and digital screens to allow on-the-spot ordering. Orders are delivered to customers via a vertical chute from the kitchen on the second floor. The system isn’t just modern Jetsons: burrito specialists say it will cut service time to two minutes or less.

“We are leaning heavily on our drive-thru plans,” Randy Garutti, the chain’s chief executive, said in an earnings call in early August. “By the end of 22, we plan to have at least 10 drive-thrus open and aim to open 10-15 more in 2023,” he added.

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