Please Drive to the Window: Innovation in on-the-go dining

Earlier this month, I came across an interview with Roushan Christofellis, co-founder of Salad And Go, a new company in Arizona that is mixing health and fast-food with its salad bar drive-through concept. Often in a rush, as I am, it got me thinking about innovation in on-the-go dining. Although the UK to-go market fundamentally differs from that of the US, there is a lot that can be learned from the country’s drive-through culture.

Salad And Go was inspired by Roushan’s and her husband’s parents’ health issues, and by their own stressful evenings after work – they wanted to make drive-through fast food better and healthier. With six locations so far scattered around Phoenix, and two more in the works, the company serves salads, wraps and breakfast items exclusively from drive-throughs – although it does have some outdoor seating for customers who prefer to get out of their cars. And they’re serious about making healthy taste good – chef Daniel Patino has worked at restaurants including Daniel Boulud’s Daniel in New York City and the Michelin-recognised Arcadia Modern American Steakhouse in California.

Salad And Go has six locations throughout Phoenix

The company’s very reasonable prices, with salad offerings including BBQ Ranch, Southwest Caesar and Mixed Greens & Apple ranging from US$5.74 to US$8.23, are possible because of the company’s micro footprint. Each building is just 656 square feet in size. Ingredients are sourced in bulk from local farmers and are organic where possible – and the prices, which also discount the traditional middleman through direct sourcing, are intended to be competitive with traditional fast-food joints.

Roushan is using the new concept as an alternative to traditional fast-food offerings, offering innovation in a often unhealthy industry: “We know that so many of those people eating from traditional drive-through fast food are forced to go there, because they, just like me, needed something convenient and affordable, and that was their only option.”

Although McDonald’s certainly dominates the drive-through market in the US, other companies with less-traditional fast-food offerings, such as the café chain Panera, have their own roadside sites. So does Fazoli’s, the Italian-American fast-casual chain backed by Sentinel Capital Partners, which chief executive Carl Howard credits as being the fastest-growing part of the business. Many of these companies rely on their drive-through offerings for a significant portion of their revenues, creating an incentive to focus on innovation in the on-the-go arm of the business and to optimise the model to cater towards customers in vehicles.

In the UK, the drive-through concept has also largely been restricted to the traditional end of the fast-food sector until a few years ago, with companies such as KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King all claiming the convenient pit stops among their locations. More recently, coffee has proven itself as a popular category for the model, leading the major companies – namely Starbucks and Costa Coffee – to enter the market with their own versions.

Starbucks UK launched an initiative in 2011 to have 200 UK drive-through locations by 2016, with around half of those developed in associated with forecourt operator Euro Garages. At the time, the company noted a flexible strategy in the arena, looking towards both kiosk and drive-through formats as it looked to cater to the necessary on-the-go element of coffee retail. Reporting on the first half of the financial year, Whitbread chief executive Alison Brittain noted the company’s “good progress” in rolling out its Costa Pronto and Drive Thru formats, serving motorists who need to get back on the road quickly. A map of drive-through locations for both companies shows that they are located in retail parks on the edges of cities and along motorways, targeting a combination of commuters and those on the road for a longer time.

KFC has been a stronghold in the UK drive-through industry

But until now, the drive-through concept hasn’t become as big a part of UK on-the-go business. Much of this is a question of car culture: with 797 cars per 1,000 people in the US, compared to 519 per 1,000 in the UK, the US clearly has more of a driving culture, which lends towards the development of more interesting roadside concepts – including an entire category of roadside attractions.

Public transport in the US does not extend through the country’s vast urban sprawl in the way it does in the UK, making quick stops in the car more valuable, and the country’s entire layout lends more towards long road trips compared to the dense, compact design of the UK. Many grocers are located between suburban clusters in the US, requiring more time spent in the car to accomplish daily tasks.

Nonetheless, companies in the UK have excelled at developing on-the-go and convenience formats that cater to the public transportation network across the country. Huge amounts of high-quality offerings at transport hubs such as Waterloo Station in London illustrate the emphasis on catering to commuters travelling by train. Retailers such as Marks & Spencer are well-known for their ready-made offering, serving busy workers who only have time to quickly pop into a shop on their way home. Across the country, contract foodservice companies such as Compass Group and SSP Group have turned transportation hubs such as King’s Cross, Birmingham New Street and Heathrow Airport have effectively become shopping centres with transport links attached.

The UK market for healthy on-the-go food has been growing at a steady rate, supported by chains such as itsu and Leon. But could these concepts work as well in the drive-through format? The growth of grocers such as Tesco, M&S Simply Food and Waitrose at petrol and service stations could also provide a base for innovation – perhaps a click & collect service allowing busy commuters to grab pre-ordered ingredients for dinner while still on the motorway.

When looking at innovation in the retail and dining sectors, it can be easy to get caught up in what is happening in city centres and on high streets. But as housing prices continue to rise and urban populations make their way to the suburbs, companies will focus more and more on innovative convenience concepts that allow for easier dining on the go – outside of the high streets. I look forward to seeing what retailers and restaurant operators will come up with. | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup