August 26, 2020

The Growth Of Drive-Thru Coffee


The words “drive-thru” make most people think of fast food. The concept was born in the 1930s, as a way of ordering and receiving cooked food, groceries, or other products from the comfort of your car. And as fast food grew throughout the 20th century, so did the drive-thru market. McDonald’s opened their first US drive-thru in 1975, and operates tens of thousands of them across the world today.

But what about drive-thru coffee?

Well, alongside McDonald’s, some of the world’s biggest coffee chains – including Starbucks, Tim Hortons, and Peet’s – all have a number of stores that either have “drive-thru capabilities” or are exclusively geared towards the drive-thru experience. Drive-thru has been a part of the wider coffee sector for decades. And thanks in part to recent events, many believe it’s only just getting started.

So where and why did drive-thru coffee start? Why is it so popular? And where does its future lie? I spoke with experts from across the world to find out.

Lee este artículo en español Servicio de Café Drive-Thru: Una Tendencia en Crecimiento

History & Major Players

While there are no formal records, one of the first drive-thru coffee shops ever opened was Motor Moka, founded in Portland, Oregon in 1990.

Founder Jim Roberts says that, at that time, Starbucks (his main competitor) was “against” drive-thru coffee, because they didn’t see how they people could have a true “coffeehouse experience” in their car. Today, Starbucks operates more than 8,500 US stores, of which 58% have drive-thru capabilities. Dunkin’ Donuts operate a similar amount of US stores (“over 8,500”, according to their website) and 64% offer drive-thru. 

And while McDonald’s don’t offer public figures on how many of their stores are drive-thru, they operate more than 36,000 around the world, across 100 different countries. Even if only 10 or 20% of those are equipped to serve drive-thru customers, that’s still thousands of stores. Furthermore, in 2017, McCafé in the USA made US $167 million in the sales of single cups of coffee alone. This shows just how important McDonald’s is in the drive-thru coffee market.

You may also like Five Practical Ways To Introduce Customers To Specialty Coffee

Finally, coffee chain Costa Coffee (owned by Coca-Cola) has started opening drive-thru shops in recent years. By mid-2019, it operated more than 40 drive-thru outlets in the UK. However, thanks to Covid-19, that number has skyrocketed in recent months, with more than 300 outlets across the country open for “drive-thru or takeaway”.

Despite the fact that the US is the leading market for drive-thru coffee – by some distance – there has been a lot of recent global expansion. Drive-thru coffee is already widely available across Europe. And in July 2020 alone, Starbucks opened its first Indian drive-thru location in Zirakpur, as well as its largest ever drive-thru in South Korea.

Why Would You Open A Drive-Thru Coffee Shop?

The main advantage that a drive-thru coffee shop offers is simple: it provides a speedy, convenient option in a high-traffic area where a regular dine-in café might not succeed.

Patrick Drew is the owner of Xcite Coffee, a drive-thru coffee shop based in Perth, Western Australia. He explains how the two kinds of shops differ.

“The major difference is the lack of seating,” Patrick explains. “Most drive-thrus will still have a walk-up window, but they’ll offer minimal seating. The vast majority of orders they take will be takeaway from drive-thru customers.

“The branding and marketing strategy will also need to be different; you may want to focus on convenience and fast execution.”

Despite this focus on convenience, however, drive-thru doesn’t necessarily have to focus on efficiency at the expense of customer service. In the last 30 years, drive-thru chain Dutch Bros. has grown from a single pushcart to operate more than 350 stores in the US.

And while this success could be down to efficiency, a big part of Dutch Bros.’ branding focuses on their commitment to “outstanding customer service”, rather than speed and convenience.

To learn more about the importance of the customer experience in drive-thru coffee, I spoke to Ellie Anderson-Smith. Ellie is the Green Coffee Buyer & Quality Manager at The Roasterie, a roaster and café chain based in Kansas City, Missouri. The Roasterie has nine cafés in the Kansas City metropolitan area, of which two are fully drive-thru.

“By creating a fast, efficient, and overall friendly drive-thru experience, coffee shops can gain revenue and retain customers,” Ellie explains. “Speed and convenience makes [drive-thrus] attractive, appealing, and accessible to more coffee drinkers that might not be able to patronise a dine-in cafe.”

Tony Asmar is the owner of Rise & Grind Coffee, based in Victoria, Australia. Tony says that the “contactless environment, convenience, and easy access” provided by drive-thru coffee have contributed to its growth.

Creating A Drive-Thru Coffee “Experience”

For some people, the concept of drive-thru service might not align with what they want from specialty coffee. A lot of specialty coffee drinkers want their coffee to be an experience, and are happy to wait. Many independent coffee shops take a lot of pride in their craft, and customers often recognise that good coffee takes time. How can this line of thought possibly work in a drive-thru setting, where the priority is speed and efficiency?

“I think there’s a stigma around drive-thru,” Ellie says. “It has a reputation for prioritising speed at the expense of quality. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.

“I think you can absolutely deliver an exceptional product in a drive-thru setting and facilitate that customer engagement. But I do think those associations may prevent specialty shops and roasters from seriously considering drive-thru as an option. The dine-in experience is a big reason why people go into specialty coffee.”

This shows that drive-thru cafés don’t have to compromise on quality. It proves that drive-thru doesn’t have to just deliver convenience – it can still deliver a customer experience. “At The Roasterie, we don’t want to sacrifice service, quality, or choice for the consumer,” Ellie says. “We don’t want to take away choice or freedom. That’s always been at the heart of our business model.” She says that offering customers drive-thru coffee is simply a “different way of crafting community”.

Further Growth On The Horizon?

Covid-19 is undoubtedly something that’s forcing people to reconsider the dine-in experience. With so many restrictions in place – including social distancing and capacity limits – many coffee shops have been forced to look at other ways to get beverages to their customers.

Across the world, major chains – including Dunkin’ Donuts, Costa, and Starbucks – have restricted the dine-in experience in their cafés, instead prioritising delivery, carry-out, and drive-thru services.

“Drive-thrus have far fewer shared touchpoints and less opportunities for contamination,” Ellie explains. “People want safety and peace of mind to be a part of their coffee experience. Covid-19 is definitely a part of this rise in popularity. It’s upending the associations and assumptions [about drive-thru].”

Whether Covid-19 is to blame or not, there also seems to be a big push to make drive-thru coffee a global trend. We’ve seen this in recent announcements from Starbucks’ drive-thru growth in Asia. For example, in South Korea alone, Starbucks has opened more than 200 drive-thrus (across new and existing stores) in just eight years.

To enjoy further success throughout difficult and more restricted times, it does seem like even specialty coffee shops will have to be flexible. “In a world like today, some shops might find themselves more open to drive-thru,” Ellie says. “However, I think there’s some rebranding that has to be done with drive-thru to make it a bigger movement within specialty coffee.”

Patrick says that he thinks drive-thru “will continue to be popular and grow, with a stronger emphasis on quality coffee in the future”.

“I would expect that we will see the large fast food and takeaway corporations continue to try and grow their presence in the global drive-thru coffee market, as well as independent shops,” he says. Tony agrees, but also thinks that the future is “keeping service easy and convenient”.

And while drive-thru looks set to grow among the major chains, is it a viable option for independent, third wave coffee shops? Only time will tell – but Covid-19 certainly seems to be pushing everyone in that direction, independent or otherwise.

There seems to be no doubt that the drive-thru coffee market is growing. This might be due to Covid-19, but there were also signs of growth long before the pandemic hit.

Organisations like Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and Starbucks are all set to expand their drive-thru offering, and many are converting their dine-in stores to offer some kind of drive-thru or “walk-up” service. Whether or not drive-thru coffee will have the same kind of success among independents remains to be seen. 

Enjoyed this? Then read How To Meet The Needs of Today’s Coffee Shop Customer

Photo credits: The Roasterie, Xcite Coffee, Rise & Grind Drive-Thru, Brendan Purdy, Achim Zepp, BetterBizIdeas, Austin Pena

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