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Chick-fil-A is testing two new restaurant designs to meet digital demand

Chick-fil-A’s new drive-thru concept includes four lanes and an elevated kitchen, while its walk-up concept is designed for urban markets. Both will be tested in 2024.

Chick-fil-A is testing two new restaurant designs – an elevated drive-thru concept and a walk-up concept – aimed at meeting consumers’ changing needs, including and especially their digital needs. Both concepts are set to open in 2024 and are run by local owner/operators. The goal of the tests is to ensure the company is future proofed as it continues to grow.  

“As we think about expanding, we’re looking at a more targeted format strategy,” Khalilah Cooper, Chick-fil-A’s executive director of restaurant design, said during an interview last week. “We want to show up uniquely in different markets to help meet the needs of different customers, and we want to have more flexibility. In some markets, we might have access to different parcels, and that’s ok because we just have to be innovative. We are thinking about the types of ways customers want to engage with us and making sure our designs meet those expectations.”

Chick-fil-A counts over 2,800 domestic locations and is on par to open over 100 restaurants this year. It has maintained that steady pace for the past three years, while digital sales have simultaneously ramped up to around 40%, and even 50% in some markets. Those digital sales have become the focal point of Chick-fil-A’s two tests.

“We all saw this during the pandemic, this high dependence on digital and consumers’ growth in leveraging tech to navigate their lives, and their interactions with restaurants is no exception,” Cooper said, adding that the new designs are “digital-focused and digital-forward, but not digital only.”

“We want to be welcoming for all guests and how they choose to engage with us. We want to be on their terms, giving them control and creating pathways for multiple experiences,” she said.

Here’s a closer look at what that means:

Drive-thru concept

The first test model is a drive-thru-only concept in the Atlanta metro market featuring four lanes split into mobile-order-ahead customers and traditional-order customers.

What’s notable about this design is the kitchen is built above those drive-thru lanes – kind of like Taco Bell’s Defy model in Brooklyn Park, Minn. The model includes wayfinding, so customers who order through the app don’t conflict with traditional customers who place their order with an employee. Cooper said the parcel size is consistent with traditional, freestanding Chick-fil-A restaurants, but “we get space back by elevating the kitchen.”

Orders in this restaurant will be expedited to employees via a “meal transport system,” which then delivers the food directly to customers. Cooper said the kitchen above the drive-thru lanes includes chutes on each side, allowing for flexibility to ramp up and down as needed depending on volume, daypart and other business ebbs and flows.

“Our focus is to make sure the process works seamlessly so our guests can get back their time,” she said.

Notably, Chick-fil-A has dozens of already existing drive-thru-only locations, but this is the first of its kind with four lanes and an elevated kitchen. Chick-fil-A first introduced mobile ordering in its app in 2013 and began testing mobile-thru drive-thru lanes in some restaurants last year.

Walk-up concept

Chick-fil-A will also test a walk-up concept in New York City, as the concept is designed to fit seamlessly in urban areas with heavy foot traffic. The format enables customers to order digitally ahead of time via the Chick-fil-A app and have it ready once they arrive. There is also an opportunity for walk-in orders, though Cooper expects those will be nominal given the market.

“The goal is to be digital-forward. We are clearly communicating to guests that the primary pathway is ordering ahead of time,” Cooper said. “But there is also a pathway for the guest who just walks in. It’s not front and center, but there will be an option to come in and place an order at the walk-up window.”

As part of the test, Chick-fil-A is also looking at bike parking to help delivery workers in the market get on and off site as quickly as possible.

Objectives and benchmarks

What else is Chick-fil-A looking for in these tests? That answer is multifaceted. For instance, the company’s voluminous drive-thru lines have been well documented and have even led to permit denials in some markets. Against this backdrop, Cooper said, “we want to be mindful and develop solutions to help if we can alleviate some of those pressures. We want to be good neighbors and make sure guests can get on and off site as efficiently as possible and we want to support our operators in restaurants navigating high drive-thru volumes.”

Chick-fil-A also wants to ensure a frictionless experience for digital and non-digital customers, and make sure its signature “high-touch connection” isn’t compromised in the process.

“We’re evaluating customers’ experience. Does it feel easy? Does it feel seamless? Can they navigate this easily? Are we giving them time back?” And, even though these are designed for customers to maximize their time, we believe a human-centric design is still critical and the meal delivery touchpoint is that team member bringing a meal to a car,” Cooper said. “We still want hospitality to be paramount.”

This is especially important for Cooper, who got her start at Chick-fil-A in the customer experience function leading the service and hospitality team. Additionally, Chick-fil-A is evaluating team member experiences. In the drive-thru restaurant, for example, Chick-fil-A has carved out a breakroom-type of space after receiving feedback from employees that they wanted such a place.

Of course, the company is also looking at sales, transactions, and volumes, and will make adjustments accordingly. As Cooper explained, “we look for things to break when we test because you can hypothesize about how things won’t work, but it doesn’t always play like that in real life.”

Chick-fil-A’s tests typically last about six months to allow for operators and teams to learn. Cooper said the company optimistic about the new models’ potential and is working closely with its operators throughout the test period. The drive-thru model was even intentionally built near headquarters to “provide as much support as possible.”

If these models do show value, the company could expand them into other markets. To be sure, expansion is ultimately the goal of any test, but these two models will provide Chick-fil-A with more tools at the very least.

“Our intent is to set up our operators for success as much as possible and connect them with successful formats as they grow. What are the tools they need if we have a gap?” Cooper said. “Is there something we don’t have a solution for? Are we meeting their needs and our customers’ needs and can we do so when those needs change over time? This is not about cost efficiency rather than how do we design for future experiences. It is an iterative process and we’re committed to ongoing innovation to take us toward different options we may not have considered before.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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