Chipotle, Rally’s, Noodles & Company execs talk increasing drive-thru experience

Drive-thru innovation and the customer experience was the focus of a panel discussion at the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit held this month in Nashville.

| by Mandy Wolf Detwiler — Managing Editor, Networld Media Group

Customer experience, expectations and challenges along with transformative technologies and innovation were the focus of a panel discussion titled “Revving Up Your Drive-Thru Experience” at the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Nashville, Tennessee this month. The event, run by Networld Media Group, draws executives from leading brands to share successful ways to grow franchises. Networld Media Group is the parent company of Fastcasual, Pizza Marketplace and QSRweb. The media company’s next event is a virtual pizza conference, the Pizza Leadership Virtual Summit, which will take place July 27.

Panelists included Jon Aiello, market president of Flynn Restaurant Group, parent company to a series of Taco Bells in the Midwest, Frances Allen, president and CEO of Checkers & Rally’s Drive-in Restaurants, Harris Khan, senior director of restaurant excellence for Chipotle Mexican Grill, and John Ramsay, vice president of franchise sales for Noodles & Company. Matt Umscheid, CEO of panel sponsor Envysion, moderated the panel discussion.

The changing customer experience

Aiello said customer expectations haven’t changed that much from pre-pandemic days – accurate, friendly and efficient service. QSR players had a natural sales lift as dining rooms closed and more people participated in off-premise dining. Customers had added stimulus money, so that added to the till as well.

Taco Bell has seen a lift in late-night dining, Aiello added, where 2 am isn’t considered late. “The later you go into that night, the more opportunity there is, and that’s really what we have focused on as a brand — capitalizing on late-night operations and late-night sales.”

Allen said drive-thrus provide a contactless and safe method of picking up food, and the speed with which brands have adopted technology is critical, too. She believes the restaurant industry has been slow to adopt technological changes, and that’s changing. Brands are expected to keep up with technology.

Accuracy, speed and proper portioning are critical at Chipotle, where Khan said his company focused on where customers could gain additional access to the brand. A few years ago, Chipotle looked at adding drive-thrus to their stores while at the same time understanding that it could be a logistical nightmare for customers to sit at a drive-thru and order toppings for their bowls or burritos.

“What if we tried to make it digital only and really try to revolutionize that experience?” Khan asked. They tested five Chipotlanes, where customers order digitally and pick up their orders in a drive-thru window. Now, 80% of new restaurants have a Chipotlane and there are more than 350 stores with the pick-up windows.

Ramsay said at Noodles & Company, customer experience was measured by the interaction between the customer and the counter employee. That relationship is now gone as technology, specifically ordering online, has taken prominence. There’s a short interaction with the drive-thru employee, and then when the customer gets home, they look at what’s in the bag, how it’s packed, and if it’s hot.

Technology and innovation

Allen said the drive-thru employee is more than just a front-line staff member. He or she is taking the order from one customer while expediting the order for the one in front. They’re asked to be polite and have a great interaction with the customer. “It’s an incredible multi-tasking job,” she said. “It takes a long time to train and it’s very, very stressful. And we asked them to do it very fast.”

Checkers and Rally’s began working with voice-activated ordering about 18 months ago, and its being rolled out to company-owned stores. Many franchisees are taking a look at it as well, Allen said, calling it “awesome” technology that reduces stress and window multi-tasking so that “when we use manual labor hours, we can strategically put them in the right place, which is enhancing that guest experience,” she said.

Getting the AI ​​voice to understand accents and still be conversational was paramount for her company. Today, the system is 98% accurate in the sense that only two in 100 times does a human have to step in to take an order or interact with the guest.

Aiello said he believes geofencing and how it relates to third-party delivery will become more prevalent. He believed it was a fad, but it’s stuck around and has thrived, especially late-night.

“What we’ve found is our brand is working with DoorDash, GrubHub, some of the third-party aggregators to do some dynamic reengineering of geofencing,” Aiello said. Drivers are now sitting in the Taco Bell parking lots late and night waiting for the orders to come through much like cabs sit outside of airports waiting to pick up passengers.

Khan said vision sensors are just entering the market but will play a crucial part in the future in terms of order accuracy. That includes being able to track ingredients as entrees are being built in real time.

“I think it’s also going to come into play when you think about deployment. If you think about the new workforce that’s entering into our restaurants today, I feel long gone are the years where a crew member or a manager is going to want to learn and retain a thousand different things,” Khan said. “So how is it that we can leverage technology to reduce all that information they need to consume and retain and help inform them… on making the right decisions necessary?”

Using AI and vision sensors, a restaurant can help deploy employees where there are bottlenecks and reduce friction for the team members.

Finally, Ramsay said the relationship between technology and the crew members is important. As Noodles & Company has increased pick-up windows and off-premise dining, what the technology is good at doing is monitoring the crew in the restaurant, such as how long it’s taking them to prepare the food. “Our pain point right now is how do you teach the technology that once we get 20 orders in, we can’t keep cranking them out every six minutes,” Ramsay said. “How do you solve that? Not at the expense of the crew member.”

Registration is now open for The Fast Casual Executive Summit held Oct. 9-11 in Indianapolis. Click here to register.

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