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10/04/2022

Exclusive Q&A: Smashburger transforms drive-thru with next-gen tech

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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drive thru
Smashburger is overhauling its drive-thru concept.

A fast-food hamburger chain is focusing on communications technology to reinvent its drive-thru experience.

Chain Store Age recently had an in-depth conversation with Carl Bachmann, president of Smashburger, about the quick-service retailer’s efforts to redesign its drive-thru model and entire store layout around the needs of the post-pandemic customer.

What made Smashburger decide to reimagine your drive-thru model?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, people were looking for the contactless ability to be able to get their food orders without going into restaurants. And if they did go into a restaurant, they wanted a touchless experience. I think that was all happening anyway, but the pandemic accelerated the need.

So, we decided to revamp the drive-thru model. The challenge is that our foods are cooked to order fresh and are made in smaller spaces. We had to really think about how we wanted to create a drive-thru model that made sense for the consumer and was simple, fast, and quick, without sacrificing our food quality standards.

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Our model is not like a fast-food player that just has burgers ready to go and can move the line quickly. The goal was to create a drive-thru experience that would only have maybe three- or four-car stack at most, as opposed to some of the big QSR brands have 30 or 40 cars stacked. The municipalities hate traffic congestion, too, it takes a lot of real estate, and you need technology to support all that.

The typical drive-thru is a three-step process. You have to place your order, make a payment, and then your third step is to get your product. Smashburger said we're going to use technology to eliminate those first two steps and just make it a clear one-step pickup window only, and really expedite the process with a new model called virtual drive-thru.

Customers order ahead of time using their smartphones. It’s the same experience, but now we give them a fresh cook-to-order product and communicate timing of when they need to pick up that product.

[Read more: What do drive-thru customers want]

What are some of the specifics of the new technology that's supporting the virtual drive-thru experience?
Smashburger simplified our app. We changed our website, as well, to make it simpler and easier to use. Now we're working on technology for text orders and voice orders.

But the most important piece is to be able to communicate back to the customers to tell them they have placed their order and have made payment for their order, and the time they can pick up their order. The technology around that is vital. And that's what we're working through now as we get ready to launch our first new virtual drive-thru.

The key here is to let customers know when they should show up. Customers can choose the time or pre-order a time to pick their order up, or they can select that they want it now, and then we could tell them okay, take X amount of minutes to arrive at this time at the window and pick up your food.

That's the technology that's really important. It involves being able to know when to eject the products into our kitchen display system and cook the products, based on the timing of those products and when the customer will arrive. That’s the key to the whole thing - people getting a fresh hot product.

Does this involve proprietary technology or are you working with outside partners to develop the solutions?
A little bit of both. For instance, the first solution Smashburger developed on our own was our cubby system. Delivery aggregators can come in and pick up deliveries from cubbies they have cubbies set up for them. They don't have to worry about queue lines. Aggregators don't care about communication; it's all about speed. The drivers want to get in and get out.

And then we took another part of the cubby system and built-in numbered cubbies, as well as a monitor above. When a customer food order is ready, we type the name into a screen over the cubby. When the customer comes in, they see their order in their indicated cubby.

But to get to geolocating the consumer or virtual drive-thru functionality, Smashburger needs some outside technology. So currently, we're working with a blend of our own technology and some outside technologies. What we don’t want to do is have low-tech communication where our employees have to text back and forth with the customers.

Can you describe your launch plans?
The company has purchased two franchise stores that had traditional drive-thrus, and we’re going to convert them to virtual drive-thrus, and we’re also opening a new one toward the end of the year in Houston, which will be our first newly-built store with the virtual drive-thru technology.

How will the store layout and real estate selection change?
One advantage of doing the virtual drive-thru with a smaller car stack is it requires less real estate. Smashburger thinks that will give us a competitive edge, as opposed to a lot of the big QSR brands need 30- or 40-car stacks, and they need a lot of real estate. That's also a plus because a lot of municipalities are not happy with the congestion and traffic jams that model creates.

Now, Smashburger can take a smaller footprint and put it in a smaller piece of property; we might be able to do an endcap of a strip center as opposed to a freestanding store. It's a little more economical for us. And it's much more appreciated by the municipalities because of the amount of traffic congestion.

Also, I think the transition from being so heavily dine-in pre-pandemic to where the industry is today, indicates that maybe you have less seating and you focus more of your real estate on production, catering production, carry-out, production, as well as now this virtual drive-thru, so it changes the physical plant to a point.

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What are your thoughts on the future of drive-thru?
There has been some customer feedback, because the upgrades to our app and our website to set ourselves up for virtual drive-thru have been very well-received, because it’s simpler and easier. I think customers will favor simplicity and ease of operation over the bells and whistles.

In addition, when landlords and developers and municipalities start seeing there's a different way to do drive-thru business, I think it will become more and more prevalent. Even the big box players and big QSR players will have to understand and see the opportunity here. They can build a smaller box and still drive revenue without impeding traffic and wasting customers’ gas, and with a smaller footprint.

We're not the only ones out there doing this. I think virtual drive-thru is an industry-wide change.