COVID Spurs Drive-Thru Shift at Cousins
Cousins Subs had been working toward more drive-thru operations for years as the nearly 50-year-old brand remodeled locations, but the COVID-19 pandemic has been another reason to push in that direction.
Joe Ferguson, VP of development at the company, said theis similar dramatic shift has been interesting to follow across the industry.
“I’m really fascinated by what this says about restaurant design. As you probably saw, Starbucks is closing 400 locations and hurrying up with 300 off-premises location buildouts,” said Ferguson.
He said the concept’s large portion of drive-thru restaurants has allowed for a natural experiment to really look at major business disruptions but also the move toward more convenient offerings across the industry.
“The focus coming out of COVID is the impact we were seeing—or didn’t see—in the drive-thru. About one third of our system has a drive-thru,” said Ferguson. “Those stores didn’t get hit as bad. Coming out of this we are really putting a focus on the drive-thru and adding more convenience for our customers.”
He said as of mid-July, sales were back on track and trending higher than last year. But in those initial two weeks of chaos as shutdowns rolled across the country, sales were down on average of 30 percent across the system. But drive-thru locations were only down about 10 percent.
The company also carved out space for a better online-order staging area to respond to the surge in drive-thru traffic. And while it still preferred to have online customers pick up orders, it handed digital orders out the window, too, despite a bit of extra ticket time added to the drive-thru. Ferguson said he hoped some technology updates would help streamline that in the future, but as many brands saw, it was easier to just let consumers do what they wanted in the moment. Cousins also saw validation of all the work the brand had been doing on convenient options.
“Off premises always been a focus for us. I think COVID kind of expedited a lot of the things we were trying to do around curbside and online ordering and also contactless curbside without having to interact with an employee,” said Ferguson. “I think it really expedited those functions and allowed us to roll those out quicker than we had planned.”
The dramatic difference in sales at drive-thru locations also helped to validate the cost of remodels and relocations, the latter being a growing part of the update program.
“We’ve done that in a few locations, moving them from an inline to a drive-thru location. It’s substantially more expensive to relocate, upwards of double the cost. But it does pay off in the long run as we look to finance those,” said Ferguson.
He said just having the option for drive-thrus can motivate ongoing development and new franchise prospects.
“I think we have the opportunity to talk to our franchise prospects and say, ‘While it's hurt sit down and the restaurant industry, Cousins is going to come through this pretty good,’” said Ferguson. “Given the flexibility in the model to provide drive-thru operations, I think investors will see us as a way to downplay some of the risk in restaurants.”