Chains like Chipotle, Starbucks, and Cava are revolutionizing the drive-thru to compete with fast-food giants

  • Fast-casual chains including Chipotle and Cava are testing digital drive-thru lanes to better compete with fast-food chains. 
  • In the coffee category, more than 80% of new Starbucks locations are drive-thru shops. 
  • As chains invest in mobile ordering and delivery, drive-thrus are an old-school way to provide customers with speed and convenience. 
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The drive-thru is making a comeback. 

As mobile ordering and delivery drive sales for convenience-seeking city dwellers, the drive-thru remains the fastest way to order a meal for most customers outside of urban centers. As chains that break the norms of traditional fast-food expand, they're looking to revamp the drive-thru in their quest for domination. 

In February, Chipotle announced it planned to open more mobile-order pickup lanes, called "Chipotlanes." Chipotle will open most of these at new locations, as opposed to adding the drive-thru lanes to existing stores.

Laurie Schalow, a representative for Chipotle, told Business Insider this week that the chain is still epxanding the test and plans "to open several dozen of them this year."

CEO Brian Niccol explained that Chipotlanes functioned essentially as drive-thrus, with the major difference being that customers needed to place their orders on the Chipotle app or on an online form. After placing the order, customers are able to pull up to a window at the specified pickup time, allowing them to pick up orders without leaving their car.

"Arguably, it will be the fastest way to [get] Chipotle — going through the Chipotlane," Niccol said in February.

Chipotle isn't the only chain testing digital drive thrus. Up-and-coming fast-casual chain Cava is rolling out a digital drive-thru in Charlotte, North Carolina, later in April, CEO Brett Schulman told Business Insider this week.

For suburban customers, Schulman said, drive-thrus are often the most convenient option. However, right now, the drive-thru market is dominated by fast-food chains. 

"Early on, when we were opening in far-out suburbs or some other other suburban markets, we had people coming up so appreciative that we weren't another burger or a pizza place," Schulman said. "Everybody loves a burger or pizza, right? But, there weren't a lot of options for people who wanted to eat more healthful on a regular basis. So,  we applied that same thought to drive-thrus." 

Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts have also been testing drive-thru pick-up for mobile orders.

Starbucks, especially, is doubling down on drive-thru locations. More than 80% of the new Starbucks locations opened in fiscal 2018 in the United States were drive-thrus, the company reported in November. Stores with drive-thrus "well outperformed" overall comparable sales, and the company plans to continue to focus on drive-thrus in the coming year.

The coffee giant's focus on drive-thru comes at a time when Starbucks is reconsidering its store designs and overall strategy to better fit with modern customers' needs. 

"Our relationship with our customers starts the moment they think of Starbucks," Roz Brewer, Starbucks' Americas group president and chief operating officer, said in a statement in March. "They connect with us through their barista and the quality of what's in the cup they take with them."

"Their third place is everywhere they're holding our cup," Brewer continued. "No matter their journey, after leaving our stores, that feeling of comfort stays with them. And in an increasingly busy and on-demand world, it's that feeling that keeps the third place growing."

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