Drive-throughs are on special order at many restaurants as owners race to put customers at ease during the pandemic and prepare for a food service future increasingly ruled by convenience.
Quick-service specialists such as Sweetgreen and Shake Shack are planning their first stores with drive-through lanes, while existing operators are scrambling to build new car-service portals or Jerry-build temporary openings to serve customers behind the wheel.
The efforts run counter to recent urban-planning thinking in which some cities seek to limit new drive-throughs to reduce auto emissions and litter, bring down obesity and improve pedestrian safety.
Drive-throughs and outdoor dining patios are rare bright spots in the restaurant industry, which has seen many businesses fold or endure a sustained battering from COVID-19 restrictions on communal dining and the reluctance of many diners to venture far from the safety of home. Some eating places around the country have even revived carhop service, a dine-in-your-vehicle option that presumably contributes to restaurant and patron survival.
Investors have taken note. Los Angeles retail real estate brokers at CBRE said properties with drive-throughs have jumped to 90% of their sales business from about half in the last 12 months as investors flee from strip centers and other struggling retail venues to places were customers are actively spending money.
COVID-19 anxiety has lifted sales at restaurants people can patronize by briefly rolling down their car windows, said shopping center landlord Sandy Sigal, president of Newmark Merrill Cos. The Woodland Hills, Calif., landlord controls 450 restaurants in 85 U.S. centers.
"The stores that had drive-throughs during this pandemic, their business went off the charts," Sigal said, citing data his company collected.
Drive-throughs are easy to build, he said, but not easy to operate when customers pour in.
"What's truly hard is to make sure that line keeps moving," he said, and hand customers their food within 10 minutes. "Who wants to spend their lunch hour sitting in a car?"
While drive-throughs have long been associated with burgers and other inexpensive fast food, more pricey competitors in the fast-casual category such as Chipotle, Shake Shack and Sweetgreen are moving into drive-throughs, according to a recent report by Credit Suisse.
Sweetgreen has been eyeing drive-throughs of its own for a decade, co-founder Nicolas Jammet said, and had been making plans in recent years to build them.
"Then COVID hit," he said, "and we looked at our customers and said, now is the time to fast-track this and bring it to life."
The national restaurant chain, which is based in Culver City, Calif., positions itself as a healthy-food-oriented competitor to the cheap and fast hamburger purveyors that pioneered the drive-through market and still dominate it.
During the pandemic, "a lot more customers are reluctant to come inside," said Jammet, who is co-chief executive.
Sweetgreen has historically catered to a tech-savvy customer base, he said. Even before the pandemic, about half of the orders at Sweetgreen's 120 restaurants were placed and paid for digitally, for pickup or delivery.
The company strives to "reduce friction" for customers and make ordering health food "fast, convenient and cool," Jammet said. Upmarket New York burger joint chain Shake Shack, which has been operating on a to-go-only basis during the pandemic, announced in October that it will open its first drive-through late this year, with as many as eight by the end of 2022.
Chief Executive Randy Garutti in an earnings call described them as "a modern version of the traditional drive lane experience," and a rendering of a prototype in trade publication QSR Magazine showed two car lanes for drive-through service and a third for pickups placed through phone apps.
One of the growing drive-through categories during the pandemic has been coffee, a daily staple many are unwilling to forgo.
Starbucks is the java juggernaut, but one mom-and-pop caffeine shop in the Cypress Park district of Los Angeles has rigged up a temporary solution to compete by turning its side door for deliveries into a drive-through.
"We've been getting a lot of customers from the Starbucks down the street" who notice that the car line is shorter at 1802 Roasters, co-owner Christian Degracia said.
The neighborhood coffeehouse on Cypress Avenue has been open about a year and did 95% of its business through the drive-through when outdoor dining was banned by health officials, he said.