Why QSRs are turning to shipping container drive-thrus

December 7, 2021
Drive-thru shipping container kitchen

A survey done by the National Restaurant Association found that between March and April of 2020, 8+ million restaurant employees were laid off or furloughed. TheNational Restaurant Association also predicted the industry would sustain $240billion in losses by the end of 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has hit restaurants hard with a few exceptions: quick serve restaurants (QSRs), notably drive-throughs, have managed to thrive. In the age of social distancing, it’s paying to have the flexibility. Savvy restaurateurs are looking to remain adaptable with modular shipping container restaurants that combine the amenities of a commercial kitchen with mobility.

Where the restaurant industry is now

Since March, restaurants have pivoted. Anew report found that 67%of operators have added curbside service since the pandemic began. Restaurant sales have been slowly creeping up since the beginning of the lockdown, but they’re still nowhere near where they were pre-COVID with a few exceptions.

A few quick serve restaurants have stepped out above the competition by adapting their business models to the new circumstance. For example, Chipotle’s digital sales have grown by 216% thanks to its “Chipotlanes,” drive-through lanes devoted to orders completed online ahead of pick up.

40FT shipping container kitchen floor plan

Why are drive-throughs thriving in the pandemic?

Most restaurants have adapted to social distancing, but the protocols are varied. Sometimes a restaurant’s protocols are posted online or as a sign on the door. At other businesses, the customer only discovers their policies when a staff member directs them. It takes energy to learn each new protocol and calculate a new risk assessment. Customers—especially those who are immuno-compromised or live with immuno-compromised family members—are tired of playing a guessing game with their health.

By comparison, the drive-through is downright cozy. Customers already know the etiquette and how much contact they can expect. Except for masks, getting a burger at the drive-through feels about the same as pre-pandemic times.

How to make drive-throughs work with shipping container kitchens

Manage your physical space

Typically, the biggest hurdle to setting up a drive-through restaurant is layout and road space. Retrofits are possible and often worth the investment. Chipotle’s CFO, Jack Hartung noted that it takes about $70,000 to retrofit an existing restaurant with a Chipotlane, and increases revenue by up to $300,000 annually.

Unfortunately, not every brick and mortar may have the architecture or lot space to accommodate a dramatic rebuild. Businesses starting a new location with a shipping container kitchen have considerable freedom to orient their restaurants. A 40-foot container has a 320-sqft footprint. Even on a small lot, it’s possible to create space for the car line.

With the proper utility connections, you can even put a shipping container restaurant on an existing parking lot.Shipping container restaurants are turn-key. You can have your container and your car line signage up and running in the same day.

Some people are apprehensive about trying to fit all their equipment, ingredients, and their team in a shipping container. We’ve found that businesses are consistently (and pleasantly)surprised by how much space they have when they implement smart interior design. ContekPro’s pre-designed Bolt Kitchen series uses a galley-style layout. Cook shave enough room to pass each other without spilling.

You can also design your shipping container kitchen to have service windows at opposite ends of the restaurant, so the food flows in the same direction as the cars.

Interior shipping container kitchen

Manage your digital space

Ordering at the menu board is a bottleneck at drive-through restaurants. Just one indecisive customer can throw off the flow. QSRs like In-n-Out are managing the problem by having employees go out with tablets to take orders ahead of time. Incorporating an app for ordering and payment ahead of pick up also reduces the amount of time people spend inline. Not to mention, online orders cut out another interaction and reduces the risk of infection. Launching an easy-to-use app alongside your shipping container restaurant will integrate your customers into a faster process.

Be ready to be flexible

The sudden surge in popularity put drive-through innovations on warp speed. If customers are ordering online en masse, it may soon make sense to cut out the menu board entirely and only have a pick-up window on the drive-through side.

It’s also unclear where the restaurant business is going. If vaccines aren’t widely used or distributed, we could be living with sporadic lockdowns for years. When the pandemic does end, COVID may have permanently changed customer attitudes. Sit down restaurants could come roaring back, or customers may realize that they actually prefer the convenience of take out. On top of that, technology is shifting. Today we’re looking at online orders. In another few years, it may be drone delivery.

Shipping container kitchens give you time and space to maneuver. You’re free to rearrange your restaurant’s car line, or even pivot to a sit-down area if that’s what you need in a few years.

40FT shipping container kitchen

Where do I get started?

First, take a thorough look at your intended location. Map out where your water, sewage, electric, and gas lines are. If you draw the lot to scale, you can cut out a proportionate rectangle and experiment with the placement. Better yet: if you have access to your intended location, set up pylons and drive through your hypothetical car line yourself. Every location has its quirks. It’s best to discover them before you begin building.  

We recommend looking at our existing designs so you can get a sense of scale. You’ll be able to see how standard features, like refrigeration units, cooking appliances ventilation, and workspaces, all fit together into one unit. Take notes on any changes you need, or experiment with drawing your own layout. Coding varies with every jurisdiction, but we build to the highest standard. Shipping container kitchens have all the safety features of a commercial kitchen. We’ll have a specialist walk you through the design process and offer a free quote before you have to make any commitments.

Have any questions? Reach out. We’re happy to help.

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