The Web site of a Mr. Gatti's Pizza restaurant in Bedford, Ind., invites customers to use its new "Super Drive-Thru," but takers are few so far, said assistant manager Stormi Taylor.

"For a while it was pretty mediocre," said Taylor, "but lately, with the cold weather, it's picking up some. Probably because we're telling more people about it."

That Taylor has to tell customers Mr. Gatti's offers drive-thru says a lot. Not only do pizza buyers not equate their purchases with the rapid "buy and bye" hallmark of burger chains, they instinctively know that from the time they place a pizza order until the time they receive it, 15 to 45 minutes may pass. Such waits aren't associated with the classic drive-thru experience.

"Pizza is very much a planned purchase, not so much an impulse purchase," said Tom Krouse, senior vice president at Columbus, Ohio-based Donatos Pizzeria.

But that doesn't mean a pizzeria can't offer customers the ease of using a drive-thru window, he insists.

"It's a tremendous convenience for customers who are mobile," Krouse said, adding that about 100 of Donatos' 181 stores have drive-thru windows. "But to make it work, it really requires you to educate people and brand it differently than just a traditional drive-thru."

In all its advertisements, Donatos makes every effort to tell customers to call ahead for its drive-thru service. The goal, Krouse said, is to train patrons to expect their pizza will be ready 15 minutes after they call.

Daniel Morrison, president of the 57-unit Pizza Plus chain said his company not only mentions its stores' drive-thrus in advertisements, phone order takers encourage carryout customers to use it.

"We always ask them, 'Do you know we have a drive-thru window?' " said Morrison, whose company is based in Bristol, Tenn. "People like knowing all they have to do is put on their slouch clothes and a hat to come pick it up, or get it on the way home."

Krouse said many of Donatos' drive-thru customers are cell-phone users leaving the office and mothers who know they won't have to leave their children buckled in the car to get carryout.

These same people, he added, often aren't customers living in a particular store's customer area. Over time, Donatos' advertising has taught them to make stopping at the drive-thru part of their route home.

"You've got to make the right people aware of it by communicating to a broader audience, and sometimes that means getting the message to customers outside of your trade area," Krouse said.

But why not instant service?

Tom Potter doesn't buy the argument that drive-thru pizza service can't be fast. Potter, who is founder and managing director of 150-store Eagle Boys Pizza in Brisbane, Australia, rolled out a "two-minutes or it's free" pizza service last spring. The cook-and-hold system, which Potter said maintains a pizza at optimal quality for 30 minutes, is ideal for drive-thru sales offered at seven of his stores.

Just as in America, Potter said Aussie pizza eaters have to release the mind-set that pizza places can't offer rapid service, and pizza companies aren't helping them by pushing call-ahead service.

"I believe (drive-thru) is the way of the future, mate. Where we can add it, we do."

Tom Potter
Managing Director
Eagle Boys Pizza, Brisbane, Australia

"We either have instant drive-thru or nothing," said Potter, adding that drive-thru sales at his seven stores account for about 15 percent of total transactions. "If you're going to put drive-thru in just to have people call in and pick up, I don't think it'll ever work, because that's not the way people picture it."

Mike Scruggs, senior vice president of global operations at Detroit-based Little Caesars said the chain offers rapid drive-thru service at some of its units. Little Caesars has tinkered with drive-thru windows since the mid-1970s, and learned the art of cooking and holding pizza. It also has learned not to advertise "drive-thru" service if you're not prepared to do it quickly.

"If you put a drive-thru on a restaurant, it creates impulse thinking," Scruggs said. "You have to have products and services and operational system to support that."

Scruggs said some Little Caesars stores sell speedy lunchtime slice deals, and that those operators can handle whole pies just as easily.

"It's all about projecting, just like any fast-feeder," he said. "There's a chance you'll throw away some product, too, but sometimes you have to do that to make it fast and fresh. If it's fast and stale, they're not coming back."

Fast Fact ...

* According to QSR magazine, more than 400 McDonald's drive-thrus in the Chicago area use Speedpass -- a tiny transponder waved by customers as they pass through the drive-thru, and which pays their tabs.

Potter said offering a limited menu also is necessary for quick drive-thru service; his stores give four basic pizza choices for customers wanting the two-minute service. Those who order items from the main menu must park and wait for them to be made.

"We work to encourage customers to use the drive-thru as it's designed to be used," Potter said.

More than just a window

Every operator said drive-thru service requires a staff effort that extends beyond pushing pizzas through the window. Some companies' systems require additional staff, and others require wireless headsets so drive-thru-dedicated personnel can move freely within the shop and communicate with customers and other employees.

Some systems, such as Donatos', include posting staffers outside the shop at peak drive-thru periods. To keep traffic lines moving, the employees move from car to car asking for customers' orders.

"We want somebody out there to identify the orders so people who've called ahead aren't kept waiting," said Krouse, adding that some Donatos stores do as much as 45 percent of their sales through the drive-thru. "Then we'll have somebody go inside and get their order for them so we can send them on their way."

Operators had mixed opinions on how high-tech a drive-thru system's equipment should be. Some used a modern POS system while others, like Pizza Plus, use a cash register. In every case, though, the payment unit must be near or right next to the drive-thru window.

None of the operators had outdoor, lighted menu boards, nor did they have outdoor speakerphone communication systems. Eagle Boys' and Pizza Plus' order-takers speak face-to-face with customers, something Potter said added to the customer experience.

"They're looking someone in the face, they tell them what they want, and the person repeats it back to them," said Potter. "It's simpler that way, and that's the way McDonald's in Australia now does it."

Fast Fact ...

* McDonald's says unit sales increase 1 percent for every six seconds saved at the drive-thru. A single Burger King unit's sales grow $15,000 a year for each second it shaves off drive-thru time.

Donatos' employees use headsets to stay in touch with other staffers, something Little Caesars' Scruggs called another key to a smooth-running drive-thru.

A communication system "is another necessary tool to give your store the ability to handle that kind of business properly," said Scruggs. What some operators don't anticipate about adding drive-thru, he continued, is that it changes the way a normal delivery-carryout store is run. "It's like adding another restaurant. You must be a very sharp operator to run that type of restaurant, and you've got to use every advantage you can get."

One site doesn't fit all

Morrison's Pizza Plus chain is an anomaly among pizzerias; all 57 units have drive-thru. Krouse, Scruggs and Potter said they wish all their companies' units had that window of opportunity, but that it's not always possible. Freestanding sites are always expensive, and an endcap with an exposed wall is neither always available nor affordable.

"Where drive-thru makes sense, we go after it," Scruggs said. "It depends on what your costs are, but sometimes the extra $200 to $300 a month you spend to get that great location that can have a drive-thru may be worth it."

Since drive-thru pizza sales currently make up a small percentage of most stores' overall transactions, an operator has to calculate whether the cost of adding drive-thru would be offset by potential sales. If adding a drive-thru window only would make life easier on projected carryout customers rather than draw additional customers, it likely isn't worth the cost, Scruggs said. "It's a balance between wanting good sites and being conscious of the costs associated with the space you want."

And even if you get the right drive-thru site, is it worth the investment in drive-thru equipment? Potter said, "Absolutely it is. ... It only adds about 10 percent -- if that, really -- to my overall construction costs. If you can do it, do it."

The costs of adding a drive-thru window vary widely and depend upon what an operator wants. According to Kristy Rivera, marketing and sales manager for Chicago-based Ready Access, a manufacturer of drive-thru windows, the cost of that component alone can run between $720 to $6,300, plus freight, depending on the complexity and the finish of each model. (Rivera said that most pizza operations choose a window unit costing around $1,000.)

Still, that cost doesn't include installation, which Rivera said varies widely by region.

Operators then have the choice of buying a communications system, outdoor signage, a dedicated POS terminal, etc., all of which could run more than $10,000 if one gets every bell and whistle.

Again, Scruggs' question returns: Is such an investment going to pay for itself?

Potter believes that in the long run it will.

"I believe it's the way of the future, mate," he said. "Where we can add it, we do."

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