In the early 1970s, Lee Staak, owner of the Hardee’s in Coralville, tried a new idea at one of his Eastern Iowa restaurants — a drive-up window.
“It was really kind of an afterthought,” Staak recalled. “We cut a hole in the side of the building and went with it.
“Over the years, there has been a steady increase in our drive-through business as people have become very convenience-oriented. Today, it generates about 70 percent of our business.”
Fast-food restaurants nationwide generate about 70 percent of their sales from the drive-up window, according to the National Restaurant Association. Customers made 12.4 billion trips last year to the nation’s drive-through windows, up 2 percent from 2010.
When the June 2008 flood partially submerged Staak’s restaurant at 107 Second St., he needed to decide whether to repair and remodel the 26-year-old building or demolish it and start from scratch.
“We looked at new building designs, their functionality and energy efficiency, and what our customers wanted,” Staak said. “We made decision to scrape it, fill in the basement and construct the building higher because of the FEMA requirement to be above the flood plain.
“We used to have very large dining rooms that had indoor play areas, meeting rooms and seating for 120 people. Now, this building has seating for 66 people and very rarely does it get full.
“We have a building that’s much more functional and energy efficient. We’re saving thousands of dollars each month on utilities.”
Perry Beaton, owner of Beaton Inc. in Cedar Rapids, faced a similar situation in 2005 when it came time to replace a 21-year-old Burger King restaurant at 390 Edgewood Rd. NW.
“We built it during the winter months, and we had a lot of maintenance problems over the years with that building,” Beaton said. “We had known for a couple of years that we wanted a new building at that location.
“About 70 percent of the business at that location is drive-up customers. We felt that we could reduce the size of the dining room and design the kitchen more for drive-up traffic.”
The 100-seat restaurant was demolished to make way for construction of the new building that accommodates about 80. Beaton, who is remodeling a 21-year-old Burger King at 2505 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE, also added a double drive-up window to handle the increase in grab-and-go traffic.
Beaton Inc., which owns 19 Burger King restaurants, remodeled a 21-year-old location at 395 33rd Ave. SW in Cedar Rapids in 2010. As the company’s franchise agreements have run out at the end of 20 years, it has been required to remodel its stores to conform with Burger King’s latest design.
Kevin O’Brien considered consumer dining trends and other factors when he decided to demolish and replace a 15- year-old McDonald’s off Interstate 80 in West Branch earlier this year.
“West Branch has more commuter traffic, although some of our traffic comes off the interstate,” said O’Brien, president of Creative Management, which owns nine McDonald’s restaurants in Johnson, Iowa and Washington counties. “The percentage of drive-through sales is significantly less than in town where people are on their way to another appointment or they only have a certain amount of time for lunch.”
O’Brien said older McDonald’s locations were built with a basement to store perishable and nonperishable supplies, allowing for larger dining rooms and kitchens. Just-in-time delivery by suppliers has eliminated the need for basements in newer locations.
“While the configuration of our kitchens is different, the size has stayed about the same,” O’Brien said. “We have a lot more products on our menu that we have to produce efficiently and deliver to our customers.”
While some fast-food restaurants have reduced the size of their dining rooms, O’Brien said McDonald’s is taking a different approach.
“We’re becoming more of a ‘Hey, come and stay’ experience,” he said. “The dining room in our two-year-old Coralville restaurant has televisions and free WiFi Internet access to provide customers with a sanctuary after a hectic day.
“Our West Branch restaurant will be even more of a step ahead from what we’ve learned in Coralville.”
While Burger King, Hardee’s, McDonald’s and Wendy’s have had drive-up lanes for many years, another fast-food chain that is experiencing rapid growth also sees a bright future at the drive-thru.
Chick-fil-A pioneered quick-serve restaurants in shopping malls 45 years ago in Atlanta, Ga. In 1987, the Atlanta-based company opened its first freestanding store and drive-up lanes have generated a larger share of sales each year, according to Chuck Rice, Chick-fil-A senior architect of design and innovation.
“We have about 55 percent of our customers come through the drive-through,” Rice said. “We look for a design that will deliver a remarkable dining experience, whether our customer dines inside with us, uses the drive-through or takes it home with them.”
Freestanding Chick-fil-A restaurants, such as the location that opened Oct. 25 at 217 Collins Rd. NE on the perimeter of Lindale Mall in Cedar Rapids, are equipped with a dual drive-through ordering lanes with separate menu boards. Customers place their orders at separate screens and then merge into a single lane to pay for and pick up food.
Chick-fil-A franchisee Bob Schmidt, who is transferring from a location in Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville, said the 4,500-square-foot restaurant employs more than 80 and seats 140, with an additional 26 outdoor seats.
“Many of our customers still like to come into our restaurant to eat, so there’s been a lot of thought and research that’s gone into creating an environment that’s very accommodating and comfortable,” said Schmidt, who operated a Chick-fil-A in Westdale Mall for nearly 24 years from 1983 to 2007 before transferring to Coralville.
“We have a centerline kitchen that allows us to focus on the drive-through. We have a separate room where the customer will not see us, but we can prepare food during the busiest time of the day and serve people a lot faster,” Schmidt said.
“There are some Chick-fil-A locations that are so busy that they have employees walking out into the drive-through area to take orders on an iPad.”
Iowa’s first stand-alone Chick-fil-A restaurant opened in October 2008 in Davenport. This year, the chain added another three freestanding Chick-fil-A locations in Iowa with the Aug. 16 opening in West Des Moines, Oct. 25 in Cedar Rapids and Nov. 1 in Sioux City.
While Chick-fil-A will continue to open locations in shopping malls, Rice said the majority of the company’s new restaurants will be freestanding units with drive-through lanes.
Another change that has affected the design and operation of fast-food restaurants is a customer preference to pay with a credit or debit card. In many cases, computerized cash registers are equipped with card readers, allowing customers to swipe their cards to pay for their food.
“I think it’s improved the guest experience,” Staak said.
“The average transaction for someone who uses a credit card is about $2 higher than if they use cash. Over 40 percent of our sales involve credit cards.”
When a restaurant is replaced, such as the McDonald’s at 610 33rd Ave. SW in Cedar Rapids, operators expect to have their doors open 90 days after the demolition of the previous building. That has led to the use of prefabricated walls and other techniques to speed up the construction process.
“Time is money, and every day that we’re not selling product, we’re behind,” Creative Management’s O’Brien said. “Our buildings are a lot more energy efficient energy with features such as high-efficiency LED (light emitting diode) lighting and waterless urinals.
“McDonald’s does a lot of research regarding what customers want and that influences our menu and the design of our restaurants. The company also provides incentives to encourage franchisees to rebuild.”