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At one point most figured it would take about five to 10 years for off-premises to become the industry-wide norm in the restaurant biz and for QSRs to change their store formats accordingly. Instead, those changes around restaurant store formats have unfolded in a matter of months and are soon to be everyday realities.
Ever since Burger King unveiled a new store design with space-saver kitchens suspended over drive-thru lanes and conveyor belts handing food to customers, we’ve seen a non-stop stream of announcements from fast-casual and QSR restaurant with similar plans. Two more chains joined the list this week — El Pollo Loco and La Madeleine. But rather than simply list the new features slated for those brands’ revamped store formats, it’s now worth our while to comb through all the major announcements in this realm and find the common denominators driving these new store formats. There may be a lot of unknowns in the restaurant industry right now (aka everything), but the following developments give us a pretty good hint at some certainties for the future.
With the biz going virtual at a blinding clip, it’s only natural that future store designs will have a smaller physical footprint. From the aforementioned Burger King to El Pollo Loco, more brands are significantly reducing the size of their dining rooms or getting rid of them altogether. The fast rise of ghost kitchens, which cater to takeout and delivery orders only, is partly responsible for this trend. The pandemic and ongoing lockdowns across the country are an even bigger driver, and one that’s accelerated the timeline of these smaller store formats.
But of all the concepts fast becoming the norm for QSRs, it’s the multiple-drive-thru-lane scenario — that is, stores are being designed with double and triple lanes (or more) to accommodate the uptick in customers. KFC, McDonald’s, Chipotle, El Pollo Loco, and Shake Shack are some of the top names on the list of restaurant chains literally expanding their drive-thrus. La Madeline is actually adding drive-thru for the first time, and Dunkin’ was doing the whole multi-lane concept long before the pandemic. There’s a good reason for the widespread emphasis on this particular format: with the pandemic keeping us out of dining rooms and in our cars, the length of time one spends waiting in the drive-thru is getting longer.
Anecdotally speaking, I’ve visited three drive-thru lanes in the last week where the wait time was longer than 20 minutes. (Joke’s on me for staying in line that long.) More lanes, some of them dedicated to mobile order customers, will go some way to alleviate this problem. More commonly used developments, like extra parking spaces for curbside pickup and geofencing technologies, could also reduce some of the drive-thru congestion.
Meanwhile, predictive selling technologies aren’t widespread at the moment, but they will be. McDonald’s was first to put this concept — which involves using AI, machine learning, and other tech to analyze customer preferences and upsell relevant items — on the industry’s radar when it acquired Dynamic Yield. Over the last few months, Restaurant Brands International, which owns BK, Tim Horton’s, and Popeye’s, announced plans to use something similar in its drive-thrus, and KFC has hinted at using AI as well.
While predictive selling tech doesn’t directly alter store formats, it expedites channels like pickup and the drive-thru, which are integral parts of the QSR of the (near) future. It’s also a good example of how technology will influence the physical restaurant going forward. Tech that makes off-premises channels faster and more efficient will help drive more sales through those channels. That in turn will make those off-premises channels more valuable than their dining room counterparts, both now, during lockdowns, and long into the next decade. That makes these new developments in store formats less of a trend than a really big step into the restaurant industry’s next version of normalcy.
Upcoming Event: The Ghost Kitchen Deep Dive
Is now the right time to adopt a ghost kitchen strategy? The epic fallout of the restaurant industry suggest yes, but before you take the plunge, there are many things to consider. How much will it cost? What kind of set up do you need? How do you scale a virtual restaurant business?
Join The Spoon on Dec. 9 to discuss these things and more at our latest virtual event, The Ghost Kitchen Deep Dive. Throughout the day, we’ll be joined by Reef, Kitchen United, Ordermark, Fat Brands, Wow Bao, and many other companies enabling big changes in the ghost kitchen space.
General admission is free. Register for a Gold Ticket and get special networking opportunities, a month of free access to Spoon Plus content, and exclusive live tours of some real-life ghost kitchen operations.
Restaurant Tech ‘Round the Web
California imposed new stay-at-home orders for certain regions in the state late this week. Looks like it’s back to takeout- and delivery-only meals for Golden State restaurants for the foreseeable future.
Uber completed its $2.65 billion acquisition of Postmates this week, and the two companies have started to integrate their U.S. operations.
Restaurant tech platform Allset this week launched a new feature, Dietary Preferences, to its takeout and contactless dining app. Customers can add their dietary needs and preferences as well as any food allergies to their search to further refine results on the app.