An Applebee’s franchise operator is retrofitting a location in Texarkana, Texas, with a drive-thru pickup window that the franchisor hopes will provide insights for future store design and takeout procedures.
“We look forward to assessing the performance of this installation, understanding feedback from our guests and operators, as well as any impact to business performance,” said Scott Gladstone, vice president of strategy and development at Applebee’s Grill + Bar. “If positive, we will determine whether pickup windows should be included in our building design packages.”
The location, operated by Texarkana-based franchisee Apple Arkansas, will allow customers to order and pay online or via mobile app, or order by phone and pay in person at the window when they pick up their order. Customers will be given an estimated pickup time after they place their order. The window is slated to open early this year.
Applebee’s, which along with sister chain IHOP is owned by Glendale, Calif.-based Dine Brands Global, had already developed a robust takeout offering through its Applebee’s To Go service before the pandemic began last year. Restrictions on in-store dining in markets around the country beginning last March have led Applebee’s and other operators to place renewed focus on off-premises consumption, however, leading to the creation of new, dedicated order pickup areas and the addition of contactless curbside pickup zones at many restaurants.
At Applebee’s, off-premises sales climbed to 60.5% of the chain’s sales mix in the second quarter of 2020, Gladstone said, noting that off-premise sales remained relatively high at 34.6% in the third quarter.
The company’s hope is that the new drive-thru window’s proximity to the kitchen could make takeout order throughput more efficient, Gladstone said. Apple Arkansas plans to tweak its staffing and operations as necessary to accommodate the new drive-thru service once it opens, he said.
While in general it can be a challenge to retrofit existing buildings to accommodate this type of enhancement, Gladstone said the layout of the Texarkana store allowed for construction to take place with minimal disruption.
Apple Arkansas had identified the location as a potential test site for the takeout window given the trends it had been seeing in the area, he said.
“The drive-thru pickup window is one example of how we’re continuously looking to enhance the order and pickup process for our guests,” Gladstone said.
The installation comes as several quick-service and fast-casual operators, including Burger King, Taco Bell and Chipotle, have announced plans to redesign stores and add more drive-thru window capacity going forward, but Applebee’s appears to be one of the only casual-dining brands to test drive-thru service.
According to The NPD Group, drive-thru restaurant visits increased 26% in the second calendar quarter in 2020, although the increases tapered off as more restaurants reopened for indoor and outdoor dining. The research firm projected that restaurants would continue to expand their drive-thru and other off-premise capabilities in 2021.
“Drive-thru operations are delivering a high ROI during the pandemic, offering convenience, speed, and the comfort of social distance to consumers using them,” said David Portalatin, a food industry advisor at NPD, in a statement. “Drive-thru and other off-premises operations will be a major part of the U.S. restaurant industry’s recovery and future.”
Applebee’s said it anticipates ongoing growth in off-premise dining in the year ahead.
“Off-premise innovation has always been a big part of our brand strategy, and it’ll be no different in 2021,” Gladstone said. “While we will be bringing back many of our classic guest-favorite offers throughout the year, we’re also working to develop new and exciting off-premise focused offers that our guests will enjoy — including updates to our virtual brand.”