quick-service restaurants

Quick-service restaurants are shrinking — by design

Digital is the present and the future for quick-service restaurants, and many major chains are refocusing on smaller physical footprints to increase efficiencies and maximize that potential.

Tim Hortons’ U.S. restaurants are getting smaller in an attempt to make the most out of a smaller space and speed up build times, said José Cil, CEO of parent company Restaurant Brands International (RBI), per Business Insider.

Those restaurants are also seeing “encouraging” results from operating with an optimized menu that focuses on “beverages, baked goods, and hot breakfast sandwiches, all leading to more compelling unit economics,” Cil added.

Joshua Kobza, COO of RBI, added on the same earnings call that Cil made his comments that Tims is also adding more order and pickup channels to its restaurants this year, including walk-up order windows, dedicated curbside pickup areas, and drive-thru conveyor systems.

Other chains have also been redesigning their restaurants as more customers order digitally and consume off-premises, all while looking for convenience and speed.

Tims’ fellow RBI company Burger King is also rolling out a new restaurant design that it calls “the restaurant of tomorrow”. That design comes with triple drive-thru lanes, food lockers to keep pre-orders warm, and conveyor belts that deliver food to customers’ cars. Nearly 30 per cent of Burger King restaurants in the US have now been updated with the new technology.

Meanwhile, a significant facet of KFC’s plans for 2022 include smaller off-premises-focused Next Generation store prototypes, reports Nation’s Restaurant News. The prototype emphasizes off-premises needs with a smaller physical footprint, drive-thru lane for mobile orders, and a shelving system for mobile order pickups.

Two of the crucial elements of the Next Generation store design, notes NRN, are making sure to appeal to every type of customer — from families to traditional orderers to the modern digital consumer.

“We want to make sure our online customers have a really quick in-and-out with their orders,” said Pradnya Bendre, director of KFC U.S. architecture and design development. “We are seeing increasing orders coming online. […] We had to make sure that through design, we make it easy and frictionless for those online customers.”

These are just the latest moves from quick-service chains.

In some cases, they are scrapping dining rooms altogether, focusing on drive-thrus, and pushing customers to order without speaking to staff.

Taco Bell’s latest digital-friendly Go Mobile design, which emerged in the second half of 2021, showcased a two-storey model with four drive-thru lanes, including three lanes designated for mobile or delivery order pickups that has customers facing just a QR code and lift system. A fourth lane offers a more traditional drive-thru experience with face-to-face interaction with staff. 

Meanwhile, Dunkin’ opened its first digital-only restaurant in Boston during summer 2021 with a similar design to Chipotle’s first digital-only store.

And Wingstop, which last spring unveiled a plan to enter Canada with 100 locations starting in 2022, also unveiled a smaller, cashless, off-premises-only restaurant in Dallas. If a customer didn’t order online or through the app, they can scan a QR code inside the store to begin ordering. The unit is equipped with what CEO Charlie Morrison calls a “refocused kitchen that we believe will be more efficient.”

The 2022 Franchising Economic Outlook from the International Franchise Association notes that it expects the trend of smaller footprints in fast-food and fast-casual restaurants to continue through 2022 and beyond. It also expects that trend to help fuel a significant recovery for franchised restaurants across North America, allocating less space for indoor seating while providing more outdoor space and quickening order turnovers.