Why You Might See More Applebee's Drive-Thrus Soon

What is the difference between fast food and casual dining? Some may say variety, others may argue food quality, and different people might mention prices. While all of these are valid, one answer is more obvious: the experience. Take, for example, McDonald's and Applebee's. You can sit down in both restaurants to eat your food, but unlike at Applebee's, workers at McDonald's aren't going to take your order while you sit in your booth. Fast food chains are built around convenience and speed, while places like Applebee's aim for a more "laid-back" atmosphere. 

However, casual dining restaurants have slowly started to adopt a drive-thru model — but not in the sense that you can pull up to an Olive Garden window and order a basket of breadsticks like you'd order a Big Mac at McDonald's. Instead, this system requires the customer to order a menu item online or through an app, then drive to the restaurant to pick up the prepared order from their car. It's a process with the same quick service element of a conventional drive-thru, but without any waiting in line, menu boards, or speakers. According to CNN, Applebee's is increasing leaning toward this model as of late. Why this sudden shift in customer service?

The pandemic forced Applebee's to change things up

As the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States, many restaurants were forced to shutter their dining rooms and rely on different ways of serving customers. For casual dining restaurants, this looked like takeout and delivery. While these concepts were nothing new, they had never accounted for such a significant portion of sales before. Per CNN, Applebees' "off-premise sales" more than doubled in the two-year period after the pandemic started. This data encouraged the company to warm up to the idea of a drive-thru. It launched its first window in a Texas location last year, and Applebee's president John Cywinski expects there to be roughly 15 more restaurants outfitted with drive-thru windows by the end of this year. These will cater to customers picking up online orders, as well as delivery drivers. 

Applebee's isn't the only fast casual brand pursuing new ordering systems. According to QSR, Shake Shack opened its first drive-thru in December and plans to build 10 more this year. Chipotle resisted drive-thru service for much of the pandemic, but the company now has hundreds of "Chipotlanes" around the country. At Applebee's, executives and franchise owners hope the new windows will appeal to customers in a rush — and encourage them to pick up their food instead of ordering delivery, which can be more expensive for restaurants. "We are competing directly with [quick-service restaurants] and fast casual," Cywinski told CNN.