As quick-service restaurants bolster their drive-thru experience with AI-powered operations, multiple lanes and conveyor belts, casual-dining does not have to be left out of the drive-thru boom. Aventura, Fla.-based Smokey Bones barbecue chain announced that the company will be opening its first drive-thru lane in April at a restaurant in Bowling Green, Ky. in answer to increased consumer demands for more off-premises options.
Smokey Bones claims it is the first casual-dining restaurant to build a true quick-service-style drive-thru lane. Other restaurant chains like Applebee’s have developed more of a drive-thru pickup lane but Smokey Bones will allow customers to place orders as they pull up.
“Consumer attitudes toward casual dining have shifted especially towards dine in,” James O’Reilly, CEO of Smokey Bones told Nation’s Restaurant News. “The dining experience is now considered more special. That change, in combination with the growth of our off-premises offerings has led us to the mindset of a more purposeful design of our restaurant experience. […] Drive-thru is a natural extension of our thought process around making the different guest experiences better for those new guest needs.”
This drive-thru design is made with three-panel digital ordering boards, digital order confirmation, a drive-up window for express menu pick up, and back-of-house vehicle detection systems for analysis. This location has also completely overhauled its back of house kitchen design to accommodate the new drive-thru, with an order assembly line, hot and cold lines and a beverage station dedicated for off-premises point of sales transactions, including the drive-thru lane.
“Modern drive-thrus are digitally-driven: they have digital menus, digital order, confirmation, loyalty, integration, mobile order and pay etc.,” O’Reilly said. “So, from a guest standpoint, pure digitization of the drive thru experience is now the expectation of a drive thru customer.”
One of the biggest selling points of successful quick-service drive-thru lanes is their speedy service, which might be challenging for a casual-dining restaurant with longer meal prep times to recreate. To meet this challenge, Smokey Bones reshuffled its menu and divided it into thirds for drive-thru customers: an express menu of items that can be easily and rapidly prepared and served through the window like sandwiches and desserts, and a section of the menu offering items from Smokey Bones’ virtual brands, The Wing Experience and the Burger Experience, which both launched in 2019 in partnership with Uber Eats.
The third section of the menu is for food items that might take longer to prepare like a rack of ribs, called the “Made Fresh For You” menu, from which customers would order at the drive-thru and park in a designated Fresh for You parking spot to await a Smokey Bones employee to deliver their order to the parking lot. This way, Smokey Bones can offer a wider variety of menu items in the drive-thru without slowing down service times.
“The objective of that process is to ensure that we can provide the guests with the very best of what the Smokey Bones menu has to offer,” O’Reilly said. “At the same time, we’re ensuring that we're doing so in a way that we can execute that menu and deliver those orders to our consumers in a way that is consistent with the standards of our brand.”
If the drive-thru lane at Bowling Green is successful, O’Reilly says they are open to expanding the service to more of their 60+ restaurants.
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