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Restaurants shuffle space to accommodate mobile orders


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A new look for Tropical Smoothie Cafe, which rolled out its mobile app in 2016.

Just as e-commerce is shaking up the retail industry, m-commerce—purchasing from mobile devices—has the potential to be a game changer for quick serve restaurants.

Why wait in a queue to place an order at a counter or at the drive-thru when you can order ahead via a mobile app and have that food ready and waiting? Consumers are embracing the speed and convenience of online ordering from websites and mobile apps, and restaurants are scrambling to keep up with the shift to serve the growing volume of advance orders.

“From a design standpoint, pickup of the online orders really has to be incorporated into the customer experience pretty seamlessly so that customers can order wherever they want,” says David Bloom, chief development officer for Capriotti’s, a sandwich shop franchisor with 100-plus locations in 21 states. “It’s where they want, when they want and how they want it, and our designs have to really accommodate that.”

Capriotti’s is one restaurant that is making changes to existing stores and rolling out a whole new prototype to respond to growing demand from mobile orders. Capriotti’s has its own mobile app that gives customers a variety of options for delivery or pickup.

The company also started working with third-party food delivery services, such as UberEats, about a year ago. Those different means of ordering require different queue lines for in-house orders, delivery services and advance orders made via the app. “Accommodating all of that requires a different consumer flow,” says Bloom.

Capriotti’s created an in-store cubby system for in-store pickup with a screen that tells the customer where to find the order. There is a full POS integration with this and a new technology for managing the new delivery and pickup systems, versus the dine-in traffic. The company also has developed a freestanding store prototype with drive-up windows for mobile orders that is still in design mode.

Tropical Smoothie Café rolled out its mobile app in 2016. Customers can place an order and pay for it with the app and then pick up food and smoothies in stores. “That is the trend of the future. So, we are trying to aggressively be an early follower of that technology,” says Tom Plauche, director of design and construction at Tropical Smoothie Café.

Since rolling out its app, Tropical Smoothie Café has surpassed 990,000 downloads, and online ordering transactions are up 149 percent so far this year compared to 2016 as more users discover the app. Mobile users also are spending more compared to in-store orders by an average of 72 cents per check.

Many restaurants are still trying to figure out how to accommodate the growing demand for in-store pickup of those online and mobile orders. One of the challenges for restaurants is how to avoid traffic jams and pinch points within the existing traffic flow of customers. People using the convenience of online and mobile ordering don’t want to wait in line when they get to the store to pick up their food.

Tropical Smoothie has an open kitchen design and a central “smoothie bar” where customers can sit and watch the preparation of their food. “What has been successful for us is putting the online pickup cubbies on the smoothie bar,” says Plauche. The smoothie bar intersects with the main wall of the kitchen and is accessible both to the employees in the kitchen and the customers coming in the front door. So, it is a convenient location and there also are employees there that do provide some oversight on the pickup or can answer any questions that a customer has about an order, he adds.

Many operators are finding they can make relatively minor changes to existing stores to accommodate advance order pickup. For example, California Tortilla created a cubby system on wheels that can be moved around within an existing store depending on the layout and traffic in that particular store. The shelf system is compact at 4-feet-wide by 5-feet-tall and 12 inches deep and costs about $1,000.

“It is really a simple solution. It is easy to integrate, and it doesn’t cost much money,” says Jim Tisack, vice president of franchise development for California Tortilla. “But it makes a big improvement on the operations of the business, because customers can simply walk in and grab their food and go. They don’t have to wait in line.”

Going forward, California Tortilla is incorporating a permanent shelf system into the design of new stores and also is adding a walkway that will give the kitchen staff direct access to the shelving versus having to take a worker off the food prep line and walk around the dining area to place orders on the shelves. “Consumers like the convenience of it, and I think we are going to continue to see the amount of people placing online orders increase, especially in some of our downtown, urban locations,” says Tisack.

As mobile sales continue to evolve and expand, restaurants are continuing to monitor what works and what doesn’t. “It’s really the flow from the back of the house to the front of the house and where do those products go and where are they held?” says Bloom. “It is as much of an operational issue as it is a technology issue that requires a lot of retraining and rethinking of POS systems and back-of-the house production,” he adds.

Capriotti’s new freestanding store prototype reflects the company’s growth, as well as the changes in where and how people order food. Capriotti’s typically leases 1,800 to 2,000 square feet of inline space. However, they are now looking for endcaps or freestanding buildings that would work to add an express pickup window for mobile and online orders.

It’s conceivable that at some point those windows could be used to place drive-thru orders, but the primary focus is on creating convenience for advance orders, notes Bloom.

The entire real estate footprint for QSRs is going to continue to evolve over the next decade because of new innovations in mobile ordering, and potentially even the introduction of autonomous vehicles that could change the in-store and drive-thru experience, as well as parking requirements.

“The days when a restaurant chain could come up with a new store design and say this is what we’re going to build for the next five years is probably over,” says Bloom. “You are really going to have to continually update the store design and layout according to the technology and the trends.”

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