Front of the House // Drive Thru

Curb Appeal

Pick-up windows add appeal for on-the-go customers


BY Annemarie Mannion Photo By Rick Daugherty

What’s better on a cold night than a hot pizza that you didn’t have to leave the warmth of your car to pick up? Even on a summer day when it’s sizzling outside, not having to leave the cool of an air conditioned car to pick up a pizza is an appealing idea.
That’s the belief of operators of pizzeria drive-thrus who are making it as convenient, comfortable and as quick as possible for customers to get their pizzas.

Operators who have embraced the idea of drive-thrus say opening one, and equipping it, is not as daunting as one might expect.

The drive-thru at Mr. Scrib’s Pizza in Muskegon, Michigan, proves that theory. It opened 28 years ago and operates with a simple system that includes an intercom and a metal box with lights.

The intercom enables workers, even if they are not standing at the window, to hear that a driver is there and wants to place an order. The metal box has numbers that light up and allows customers to go and park and then see when their orders are ready.

“We tell them their number and they go and wait until they see it light up,” says Manager Lisa Crabtree, “or sometimes (they) go and get gas or run to the store and come back for their pizza.”

Other operators have developed their own approaches for how to handle drive-thru sales. Home Run Inn, which operates in the Chicago area, only sells pizza by the slice through it’s drive-thru, which opened in Melrose Park, Illinois, about a year ago because a fast food business had left the space.

“The Arby’s that had been there already had the drive-thru, so we
decided we’d make a go of it,” says Dan Costello, president of the restaurant group.

Costello says customers can choose slices, priced at $4 a piece, from four different pies that are prepared and waiting in cabinet warmers.

“It’s not so different than staging and storing pizzas like you would for a buffet,” Costello says.

He says customers like the convenience of it. “We see a lot of moms who’ve done their grocery shopping and want to pick up a slice before they take their kids to soccer practice,” Costello says. “They don’t want to get their kids out of the car to do it.”

One of the largest considerations when adding a drive-thru boils down to space requirements. Though Home Run Inn wants to have drive-thrus at new locations, Costello says it is not that easy to find a site that can accommodate one.
“You have to have a large enough site for a drive-thru lane and an escape lane,” Costello says. “It’s a lot of land that you need to allocate to it.”

Pizza Patron, which has locations in the Southwest, West and Southeast, opened its first drive-thru in 2006 and has given the green light to adding more.

“It’s become the primary objective in our real estate search to look for places where we can put in a drive-thru lane,” says Andy Gamm, brand director for Pizza Patron.

While finding an appropriately sized site can be an issue, Gamm says building a drive-thru is not cost-prohibitive, even for smaller operators.

“It can be relatively inexpensive —maybe $5,000 or $10,000 — if all you have to do is put a hole in wall (for the window),” Gamm says.

Equipment will add to the cost and can include cabinet warmers, special ovens, menu boards, and communications systems.

At Pizza Patron, the company worked with a company to develop a quick bake oven that enabled the company to reduce its baking speed from 5½ to 3½ minutes.

Pizza Patron also prepares some extra-large pepperoni pizzas that are held in warming cabinets for customers who want a pizza immediately. If those pizzas are not sold in 20 minutes “they either get sampled or thrown away,” Gamm says.

While drive-thrus may seem the province of larger operations, Gamm says it can work for smaller venues and will pay off over time.

“If you’ve got the space that’s
conducive for it, then I think it would work for anyone,” he says. “The more convenient you can make it for people, the more they like it. They really like not having to get out of their cars. And the return on investment is pretty significant.”

That has been the case at Mr. Scrib’s, where half of the restaurant’s sales come from the drive-thru. Some days it’s where most of the small pizzeria’s sales are rung up.

It also helps the business, which is located on a busy street, compete with the fast food joints that line the strip. Thanks to its drive-thru window, Mr. Scrib’s can cater to the needs of many of its customers who work at nearby businesses and who want their pizzas quick. It also keeps the interior of the restaurant less crowded.

“Our restaurant isn’t that big, so it helps us with crowding,” says Crabtree. “It’s more convenient for our customers, particularly in bad weather.”

Annemarie Mannion is a freelance writer living in the Chicago area. She specializes in business and health stories.

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