scorecardGolden Corral's CEO reveals how the chain implemented a drive-thru-less drive-thru
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Golden Corral's CEO reveals how the chain implemented a drive-thru-less drive-thru

Mary Meisenzahl   

Golden Corral's CEO reveals how the chain implemented a drive-thru-less drive-thru
Retail3 min read
Hollis Johnson/INSIDER
  • Golden Corral pivoted to curbside pickup and drive-thru concepts during the pandemic.
  • Buffets were closed around the US, effectively shutting the chain down.
  • The chain created "virtual drive-thrus" to restart business.

Golden Corral made an unorthodox move for a buffet chain and added drive-thrus at some locations during the pandemic, but the drive-thrus are very different from the industry standard, CEO Lance Trenary told Insider.

In 2020, buffets were "virtually outlawed overnight," Trenary said, and none of Golden Corral's nearly 500 locations were allowed to open dining rooms in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. With off-premise sales making up less than 3% of business, the chain had to make updates, fast. To do that, Golden Corral looked at restaurants with multiple access points - curbside, drive-thru, and delivery were all alternative ways customers could buy food without dining inside.

Read more: Chipotle's tech chief reveals how its investment in Nuro's self-driving vehicles could 'solve' restaurants' delivery problems, as Domino's rolls out the autonomous vehicles this week

Golden Corral started testing its own drive-thrus "out of necessity," but they look different from a McDonald's or Chick-fil-A drive-thru, because Golden Corral restaurants weren't built with drive-thrus in mind. The chain first tested some to-go options where customers could fill a container and pay by weight, and created a delivery relationship with DoorDash. "That still wasn't enough; convenient drive-thrus are what customers are looking for," Trenary told Insider.

Instead, the chain created two options, Trenary said. The first is similar to carhop service, he told Insider. Customers place orders through a speaker at a drive-thru screen as they would at any restaurant, with a menu board that shows options. Then, they're directed to a parking spot, with a target to deliver food in three minutes.

Drive Thru Menu Board in Test
Golden Corral

The other model might more accurately be described as curbside pickup, but Golden Corral calls it a "virtual drive-thru." Customers pull into a parking spot with a QR code to scan, which pulls up a menu where they can then place an order and have food brought to the car. The chain has six active drive-thrus, with plans to open more in coming weeks.

For both models, Golden Corral had to reconfigure the inside of the restaurants, even though no physical drive-thru were added outside. The flow of the restaurant had to change to meet the service goal of three minute wait times, Trenary said. Workers also had to adapt to packaging meals to-go for customers, a fundamentally different service than restocking the buffet.

Golden Corral also had to restructure the menu to make drive-thrus viable - customers have to be able to choose from a set number of dishes, and too many options can make wait times far longer. To compensate, the chain added more handheld, convenient food options similar to other successful drive-thru chains, like sandwiches, wraps, and bowls.

Drive-thru use has been up industry-wide because they are perceived as a "safe way to use the brand" Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski told Insider. Brands that rely heavily on drive-thru business, like Starbucks, McDonald's, and Chick-fil-A, are investing in new designs and technology to reduce wait times and make drive-thrus more efficient. Changes include double lanes and taking orders on handheld tablets. Kalinowski says these newer drive-thru technologies can minimize wait times.

Golden Corral's non-drive-thru drive-thru gets around one of the major slow points in the concept. "In a traditional drive-thru, there's only one place an order can be taken," Kalinowski told Insider. "That creates huge bottlenecks." In Golden Corral's "virtual drive-thru," as long as there are free parking spaces customers can order at the same time, potentially making service faster.

Even chains that aren't typically associated with drive-thrus are hopping on the trend. Drive-thrus have been a "lifeline" for Krispy Kreme, the chain's CMO told Insider, and salad chain Sweetgreen plans to open its first drive-thru this year. Chipotle has invested in Chipotlanes, too.

Drive-thrus continue to look like the future of fast food and quick service dining, and the pandemic "forever changed" how customers thinking about dining out, Trenary says.