Even salad chains are moving to the suburbs.
D.C.-based Sweetgreen, the fast-casual salad chain, with locations in New York City, Boston, Chicago and Miami, is piloting its first-ever drive-in model next winter in Highlands Ranch, Colo., the chain announced Wednesday. The news comes as more consumers are ordering food online and seeking contactless pickup during the pandemic, with more people working remotely and fewer frequenting brick-and-mortar chain locations in cities.
The Sweetgreen drive-in will feature a drive-thru lane for customers who ordered food from the Sweetgreen app, ahead of time, to pick up their food and go. Others can park and order via the chain's in-car ordering concierge. Guests will also be able to dine at the restaurant’s outdoor patio.
Since the pandemic hit, Sweetgreen has opened in three new markets, including Denver, Austin, and most recently, Miami. Sweetgreen told Fox Business it pivoted delivery offerings in urban locations, catering to more to residential buildings, and continues to focus on digital ordering formats through its app.
Sweetgreen is among one of the first health-food focused chains to launch a drive-thru salad model. More fast-casual and fast-food chains have been piloting digitally-driven business models in the age of the pandemic, spurred by the need for touchless ordering to maintain social distancing. Similarly, New York City-based salad competitor Chopt, known for its wrap-around lines at lunchtime, opened up a pick-up-and-delivery-only location, a first for the restaurant, in New York City’s Lower Manhattan neighborhood last year.
Other fast-casual restaurants like Shake Shack will debut their first restaurant with a drive-thru next year, and competitor Chipotle will also ramp up its drive-thru presence at restaurants.
Fast food restaurants are also following suit. Taco Bell in August announced it was debuting a “mobile” restaurant concept focused on drive-thru and curbside pickup slated for 2021. Taco Bell Go Mobile locations will be smaller sites at 1,325 square feet, compared with their regular 2,500-square-foot restaurant locations. Wendy's and Burger King have also shared plans for similar concepts.
Online ordering has surged in recent years. Digital food-service orders made up just 5% of food-service visits in January 2018; however, by April 2020, the share of digital orders jumped to 20%, with digital restaurant orders increasing by as much as 138% in May, according to data from market research firm NPD Group.
"Overnight the U.S. restaurant industry, for the most part, became totally reliant on carry-out, delivery, and drive-thru operations to stay in business, and digital ordering became the linchpin," David Portalatin, a food industry analyst at NPD Group, said in a statement.
Many people have also left cities for suburban areas during the pandemic, another factor that played heavily into the changing of the restaurant business model to incorporate more drive-thru and digital-only ordering options. For example, more than 300,000 New Yorkers have reportedly left the Big Apple — and likely left those lunchtime salad lines in Manhattan's Midtown neighborhood that much shorter — in the last eight months, according to the New York Post.
Sweetgreen says it will continue to expand in suburban neighborhoods, testing new formats like curbside pickup and allowing customers to order ahead.
“While Highlands Ranch will be our first model with this format, we’re already looking to different opportunities to expand across the country. We’ll continue to create innovative solutions to meet our customer’s needs, which includes expansion to additional suburban areas to grow our reach,” a representative for Sweetgreen said in a statement to Fox Business.