Salad restaurant chain Sweetgreen will open its first location with a drive-thru lane and ordering from parking spots next year as it expands beyond cities into suburban America.
It joins the flood of restaurant companies that have unveiled new designs inspired by the coronavirus pandemic. Fast-food chains like Yum Brands' Taco Bell and Restaurant Brands International's Burger King have focused their new designs on making delivery and digital orders even more convenient.
But the fast-casual segment, which includes Sweetgreen and Chipotle Mexican Grill, has been influenced by the success of drive-thru lanes. Drive-thru orders grew by 24% across the restaurant industry in October, according to The NPD Group. Like Sweetgreen, Shake Shack will open its first ever drive-thru lane in 2021. And Chipotle, which has been building its "Chipotlanes" for several years, is planning to add even more drive-thru lanes as same-store sales at those restaurants outpace the rest of its footprint.
Sweetgreen's pilot restaurant is slated to open next winter in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Drive-thru customers will order their salads and warm bowls ahead with Sweetgreen's mobile app.
While inspired by the pandemic, the vaccine may have already halted the spread of Covid-19 before the concept's launch.
But, said Chief Concept Officer Nic Jammet, "A lot of our customers already have this behavior of using the Sweetgreen app to order ahead and come in ahead to pick it up."
Even before the global health crisis, more than 50% of Sweetgreen transactions were digital orders, fueling venture capital interest in the privately held chain. The company's last funding round in 2019 valued it at $1.6 billion. Sweetgreen told The New York Times that its 2019 revenues topped $300 million. Throughout the crisis, its digital channels have seen growth of more than 70%.
Customers who want to order from the comfort of their cars when they get to the restaurant will be able to do so at dedicated parking spots with intercom boxes under a solar-paneled overhang, similar to the ordering style at Sonic Drive-In.
Because of the differences from a traditional drive-thru restaurant, the chain is calling the design a "drive-in." Customers who want to eat their salads at the restaurant can either eat inside their cars or at an outdoor patio area. The restaurant design also features exterior windows that allow drive-thru customers to see the kitchen and food preparation area from their cars.
According to Jammet, Sweetgreen has been thinking about drive-thru lanes for years, driven by the idea of making healthy food just as convenient as burgers and fries. The pilot also comes as the chain furthers its expansion into the suburbs after spending its early years focusing on urban markets.
"Definitely during Covid, our work on this accelerated, and we said, 'Now's our time,'" Jammet said. "Our customers' behavior is shifting even more rapidly ... and as we move into more of these suburban areas and opening in new cities and new neighborhoods, it just seemed like something we should really focus on finally."