Boston-based burrito chain Boloco has navigated a sharp learning curve in the six months since it opened a restaurant in Warwick, R.I., with a drive-thru, a rarity for a fast-casual chain and a first for the brand.

But Boloco’s leaders nonetheless have been pleased with how drive-thru transactions have fit within the overall sales mix and touted the ancillary benefit of a flexible menu that was slimmed down for the drive-thru.

The Warwick location opened at the end of March in a converted former Tim Hortons restaurant, which had a drive-thru. Boloco did not want to demolish it during the rebranding and could not ignore it once the new location opened, so executives decided to give the drive-thru business a test drive.

“When I heard we had the space and the opportunity, we were anxious about it, but it’s been an interesting point of differentiation,” said Paul Booras, the 21-unit chain’s vice president of operations. “The burrito is a great vehicle for us to have inspired flavor profiles, and it fits in a cup holder.”

Though Boloco’s menu of burritos firmly places it in fast casual, a drive-thru did not create any “missed opportunity” to move customers through a make line — the typical process at fast-casual Mexican chains like Chipotle and Qdoba — because Boloco’s process is different to begin with, Booras said. Customers pay first when they order burritos with preconceived flavor profiles like Teriyaki, Cajun or Bangkok Thai.

Yet the brand seized the opportunity to streamline the menu to eight flavor options that are available in several sizes and add warm tortilla chips for combo meals. “Our IT guys did an amazing job with the menu system and order confirmation screens, as well as things like headset selection, to make that experience as engaging as possible,” Booras added. “All the details like clarity of sound were good.”

All told, Boloco was able to keep service times at the drive-thru to around two minutes long, which kept it competitive with other nearby restaurants with drive-thrus. “It all helped us compete in speed of service and positioned us in a like category with our competition,” Booras said. “We wanted to be conservative and dial back the menu mix, which was smart for us.”

Year-to-date at the Warwick location, the drive-thru accounts for 28.7 percent of Boloco’s sales, Booras said. The check average is running about 20 percent higher, as well, likely due to the increased combo sales from the location’s new warm chip program.

However, he added, drive-thru transactions could stand to be more profitable over time. “You see a lot of establishments that have the drive-thru for the shoulder periods [between dayparts],” he said. “It’s an additional layer to our operation and a convenience for the guest. These aren’t free transactions, because some of them would be coming into the restaurant already.”

The drive-thru has had a small, positive effect on online ordering and catering, Booras noted, though guests mostly still prefer to park and pick up orders in the store. Overall, the drive-thru feature has been accretive to sales without placing too much incremental cost or complication on the restaurant, he said.

Though Boloco would consider going into another space with a drive-thru, the company is not currently planning on retrofitting its existing stores with them, Booras said.

“It’s on the table, and in our limited experience we’re happy with our performance at this point,” he said. “We’re surprised at how we adapted to the service model and had it work, but I wouldn’t say we’re saying this is our prototype going forward. It’s a warm topic, not a hot topic.”

Boloco first opened in 1997.

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN