Once a hallmark of classic fast-food joints, the drive-thru operation is getting a fast casual–style facelift thanks to chains like Dallas-based Which Wich. The customizable sandwich concept opened its second drive-thru unit this summer in Crystal Lake, Illinois, to offer more convenience, says Jeremy Cook, senior vice president of real estate and construction.
For a franchise that creates menu items to order, fulfilling drive-thru orders quickly is a big challenge, Cook says. While guests mark their choices on the brand’s signature brown paper bags inside the store, a cashier verbally guides customers through step-by-step ordering at the drive-thru window. Based on the performance of the brand’s first drive-thru location in Marble Falls, Texas, wait times average 5–7 minutes, and the system is working well, Cook says.
The brand’s initiative is the latest step of a growing trend in the industry, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of consulting firm Technomic Inc. It follows drive-thru retrofits at a small number of locations by Panera Bread, Firehouse Subs, and Einstein Bros. Bagels, he says.
“Brands are looking at how to steal share from competitors,” Tristano says, and drive thrus offer a sales boost by appealing to customers like parents with small children.
However, eliminating a signature brand experience like Which Wich’s paper bag ordering process can present a branding problem, says Warren Ellish, restaurant consultant and president of Ellish Marketing Group. “Their drive thru may boost sales in the short-term, but in the end, they could lose sales by diluting the brand,” Ellish says. “People who don’t know the brand will lose the unique ordering experience.”
Although Which Wich’s high-quality ingredients are an important draw, it’s the ordering system that makes the brand unique, he adds. It may be better for the chain to try to replicate their ordering protocol by providing paper bags and markers for drive-thru customers, or offering a smartphone app, Ellish says.
The Which Wich team expects to make refinements to its drive-thru operation as it offers the platform to more franchisees, but early indicators are positive, Cook says. “It’s like anything else,” he says. “You want to continue to get better and try to perfect the process.”