Why To-Go-Only Restaurants Are Trending in Fast-Food Franchises

To-go-only fast-food restaurants

8 Ways Franchisors and Franchisees Benefit from Ditching the Dining Room 

Fast-food restaurants’ dining rooms may be going the way of the dinosaur. The Covid-19 pandemic jump-started the trend of to-go-only restaurants when many brands shut down their dining rooms, added app and online ordering, and expanded their curbside pickup and drive-through capabilities. 

For at least a few years, diners didn’t want to get overly cozy with a fellow diner who might have been contagious. But they also didn’t want to cook every meal at home. 

In addition, the hurry-up, make-it-snappy culture long pervasive in America feeds into the surge of to-go-only restaurants. Soccer moms, harried corporate America employees and, well, pretty much everybody appreciate the grab-and-go convenience of feeding themselves during their commute or at their children’s events. Of course, many consumers also haul the freshly prepared food home for a sit-down meal with their families. 

Deserted Dining Rooms

A boom was born, and suddenly many restaurant dining rooms were underused, according to an industry specialist quoted by Slate.com.   

“Pre-pandemic, about 50% of food was consumed on the premises, and 50% was drive-through and delivery,” said Mark Landini, a retail designer who has worked with McDonald’s and other brands. “Because of the pandemic, that’s now changed to 20-80.”

Seeing the writing on their dining-room walls, various chains have designed, and in some cases already opened, sites without dining rooms. One of the most recent launches is a Zaxby’s to-go-only restaurant in Griffin, Ga., as reported by Restaurantnews.com.  

to-go-only fast-food restaurant Zaxby’s
Zaxby’s to-go-only restaurant expedites order delivery with two drive-through lanes, including a drive-through delivery door offering faster pay and pickup.

The new location expedites order delivery with two drive-through lanes, including a drive-through delivery door offering faster pay and pickup. There’s also a walk-up window where customers can order their takeout meals. To add a little more zip between ordering and eating, customers may place orders online and via the Zaxby’s app. 

Popular To-Go-Only Restaurants

Competitor Chick-fil-A has been testing some concepts for to-go-only restaurants, with two expected to debut in New York City and Atlanta next year.

A newish McDonald’s in Fort Worth, Texas, has a to-go-only concept that delivers food to waiting customers via conveyor belts.

The Slate.com article mentions several other brands big and small that are launching to-go-only restaurants. Among the high-profile examples are Dunkin’ and Taco Bell, which recently launched its first Taco Bell Defy site consisting of a second-story kitchen that sends food down to a ground-level booth for consumer takeaway. The Slate.com report also mentioned that Panera has developed a to-go-only concept and that Wingstop’s “restaurant of the future” will have no seating and won’t accept cash. 

to-go-only fast food restaurants
The Taco Bell Defy concept has a second-story kitchen that sends food down to a ground-level booth for consumer takeaway.

The no-eating-in model has always thrived with Rally’s, Sonic and Checkers as well as Salad And Go, a popular brand in Texas and Arizona, according to Slate.com. Salad And Go founder Roushan Christofellis says his restaurants’ micro-footprints – there’s really no interior space for consumers/no inside pickup or checkout counter – are key to his brand’s low-cost salads. 

Witnessing this evolution in fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, The Wall Street Journal cited two challenges for to-go-only restaurants. One is to maintain hospitality and friendliness with a reduced human presence. The second was a caution about betting the ranch that consumers will forever shun dining in, with the Journal article noting that fickle consumers rapidly abandoned their in-home exercise bikes as pandemic dangers waned. 

Those obstacles aside, the to-go-only restaurant concept could be a gold mine for fast-food franchisors and franchisees. Here are eight factors driving it forward: 

Benefits of To-Go-Only Restaurants

to-go-only fast-food restaurantMcDonald’s
A McDonald’s in Fort Worth, Texas, has a to-go-only concept that delivers food to waiting customers via conveyor belts.

1. Smaller Footprint

The smaller footprint needed for to-go-only restaurants reduces upfront and ongoing real estate and utility costs, build-out costs, insurance costs, and possibly even property tax bills if the site is purchased instead of leased. In addition, in desirable but densely developed areas, a small lot that was too small for a restaurant with a dining room may be viable for a to-go-only restaurant.  

2. Lower Staffing Costs

Staffing costs go down. No one has to bus tables, deliver food and beverages to tables, and refill items such as salt and pepper shakers, sweetener-packet bins, and condiment containers.

3. Lower Investments

Restaurateurs don’t have to invest in furniture, light fixtures, wall treatments and floor coverings for dining rooms, nor do these items have to be repaired, replaced and refreshed through the years. 

4. Reduced Cleaning Expenses

Cleaning expenses decline significantly. Go-to-only restaurants require less staff time to mop, sweep, vacuum, wipe and scrub, and fewer cleaning supplies are needed.

5. Fewer Hassles

Smaller locations create fewer hassles. There’s less need for security and landscaping, for instance. The managerial time needed to deal with all of the above, including staffing-related hassles such as hiring and retention. 

6. Increased Revenue

Revenues rise as operating costs dip, translating to greater royalty payments to franchisors and a better bottom line for franchisees.

7. Pandemic Resistance

When illnesses such as Covid-19 (and also flu and RSV outbreaks) make customers wary about dining in, it’s business as usual for to-go-only restaurants.

8. Supreme Speed

Assisted by technology at the new to-go-only restaurants, food orders make their way to consumers’ hands and mouths faster than ever. Customers like using apps and online ordering so they don’t have to hang out inside the restaurants waiting on food prep – instead, they arrive to pick up their food, not order it, and then can be quickly on their way. This speed also builds customer loyalty. 

Are To-Go Restaurants the Wave of the Future?

The eight factors above, along with consumers’ (so far) preference for takeout food, have prompted franchisors to spend heavily on developing to-go-only restaurants. These restaurant models seem to be the wave of the future and possibly even the tsunami of the future!

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Mary Vinnedge is an award-winning journalist who has served as editor in chief, managing editor and senior editor at national and regional publications, including SUCCESS and Design NJ magazines. She also held reporting and editing roles at The Dallas Morning News and Charlotte Observer newspapers.

Before Mary began covering franchise news and trends as a staff writer for FranchiseWire and Franchise Consultant Magazine, she developed articles on topics ranging from lifestyle, education, health and science to home projects, horticulture, gardening, interior design and architecture. These articles included her reporting on academic news at her alma mater, Texas A&M University, when Mary worked in the marketing department of the Texas A&M Foundation. She continues to be a news junkie and subscribes to several publications.

Today Mary and her husband are empty nesters living on Galveston Island near Houston. The couple’s blended family – scattered around the United States – includes five children, four grandchildren and two very spoiled, very barky miniature schnauzer rescues.
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