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Drive-thru service has been one of the biggest success stories for the restaurant industry during the pandemic, as consumers gravitated to the relative safety of ordering and picking up food from their own vehicles.
The habit has shown resilience, as consumers have continued to patronize restaurant drive-thrus. In fact, drive-thru restaurant sales have increased by about 20% since 2020.
While much of the attention has been on the success of the drive-thru lanes at quick-service restaurant chains, drive-thru coffee cafés and soft-drink outlets have long been seeing strong growth, and they continue to expand. Drive-thru coffee sales have increased 8% since 2020, according to the National Coffee Association.
For entrepreneurs or others seeking to enter the fast-growing drive-thru beverage segment, the advantages include:
- Low start-up costs compared to other foodservice concepts that require space for seating and property for parking lots.
- Simplicity of operations, which allows owners to operate with minimal staff.
- Streamlined menu, which makes inventory and storage easier to manage.
- Consumers’ demand for convenience, which literally drives customers right to your your takeout window.
However, as is the case in all forms of retail and foodservice, finding the right location is one of keys to success. Putting up a drive-thru coffee shop on the wrong side of the street or in a neighborhood devoid of commuters might not work.
In addition, as consumers increasingly gravitate toward specialty coffee drinks, the demand for qualified baristas has also been increasing, making staffing a challenge for many operators in the industry.
Getting started with a drive-thru beverage business
Here are some things to consider if you plan to open your own drive-thru beverage business.
The first thing to do is to research the industry, including visiting multiple drive-thru locations with different concepts. Drive-thru coffee chains to consider visiting are Dutch Bros. Coffee, a fast-growing chain that went public last September and Scooter’s Coffee, which is also dedicated to the drive-thru concept. Both companies have spent years honing their drive-thru operations.
Likewise, would-be drive-thru soda-shop operators should visit some of the largest, most experienced operators in that niche, including Swig, Sodalicious, and Fiiz.
Create a business plan
Organizations such as the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) may be able to help if you have never written a business plan, and the U.S. Small Business Administration also offers tools that can assist in this process. Coffee Shop Startups also has a comprehensive resource for creating a business plan tailored specifically to the coffee-shop segment.
Writing a business plan will involve estimating your costs and revenues, understanding the needs of your customer base, becoming familiar with the local competition, and setting forth your own vision for your concept and your specific goals and financial targets, among other important steps.
During this phase, drive-thru operators will also need to create a menu, and here you’ll want to keep things relatively simple. Cooking equipment such as microwaves and toaster ovens take up valuable space, and offering food that needs to be prepared on-site may take away from the time your baristas and order-takers should be spending doing their main jobs.
Select a location
There are several factors to consider when choosing where to locate your business, including the demographics of the area, the accessibility and visibility of the site, local traffic patterns, the locations of nearby competitors, the zoning of the site, and, of course, the terms of the lease.
Other location considerations include the need to have restrooms nearby for your employees if you do not have them on site; the potential need to accommodate walk-up customers; the space needed for vehicles to safely navigate the site, and the need to ensure accessibility for disabled customers.
Plan your construction and equipment needs
Many drive-thru beverage-shop operators may choose to buy or lease an existing building to operate, but others will seek to build from the ground up. It’s important to know your equipment needs before you begin construction so that your space is designed optimally to maximize order throughput and provide an ergonomic environment for your workers.
Just as your equipment will determine your building design, your menu will determine your equipment needs. It’s important to consider the power supply and drainage needs of the devices, particularly in a small space such as a drive-thru coffee shop. Sinks, a hot water heater, and refrigeration should also be considerations, and space for storage will also be required.
Select ordering technology
You should consider technology that facilitates both on-site and remote ordering. This includes a point-of-sale system and potentially a headset system so that order-takers can communicate with customers before they get to the window, if the beverage shop’s layout is designed in that manner.
Ordering online in advance for on-site pickup has also become a habit for many consumers during the pandemic, and aspiring beverage drive-thru operators should consider online ordering, which enables operators to manage their online and in-person orders together in one spot, and integrates easily with point-of-sale and kitchen display systems.
Recruit and hire your staff
Taking the time to hire and train the right employees will pay dividends down the road, and in fact doing this step correctly can make the difference between success and failure for your business.
Once you’ve done your research, written your business plan, selected your location and equipment, secured all your necessary licenses and permits, and hired your staff, you will be ready to open and promote your drive-thru beverage business.