Drive-Throughs: The Real Deal

For some, enjoying a frothy cup of cappuccino means cuddling up in a big chair and hanging out with a group of friends at the neighborhood coffeehouse. For others, it’s driving up to a window, handing over a few bucks, getting a Styrofoam cup and driving off. More and more coffee drinkers who may not have time for the former are opting for the latter, and more and more successful coffeehouse owners are taking advantage of this grab ‘n go world.

Operating a drive-through rather than a sit-down coffee operation has its definite benefits — fewer employees and lower overhead, to name a few. But the same kind of pitfalls that can happen to a sit-down operation can also make life in the drive-through the pits. Site availability, securing financing and high employee turnover can plague any type of operation.

But drive-through coffee concepts represent one of the fastest-growing opportunities in the industry. So, if you’ve been thinking of getting in the driver’s seat, consider what these four drive-through owners from across the country have to say about life in the fast lane.

Well, it just had to happen. Capitalizing on the growing popularity of the drive-through coffee concept, a group of investors from the Pacific Northwest got together two years ago to begin a chain of drive-throughs with the goal of franchising the stores.

The owners are angling to capture the market between the mom-and-pop independents and the large chains, like Starbucks. “We wanted to come up with a concept, kind of find a niche somewhere in the middle,” says Al Jiwani, president of BigFoot Franchising Corporation.

The first prototype BigFoot Java® opened last January in Puyallup, Wash., in the Greater Puget Sound area. The architecture of the store is described as neo-northwest and the requisite big foot is hanging on the sign. The buildings are 400 square feet, Jiwani says.

The chain employs about 20 full- and part-time employees, including management. One to three or four employees operate a store at one time. By being open 24/7, the chain hopes to carve out a niche that smaller independents don’t (and probably don’t want to) serve and large chains have yet to tackle.

Even though the stores are open all the time, on average at the six stores (including the four that Jiwani had developed originally), the morning commuting hours represent 50 percent of business. That why, Jiwani says, when scouting locations, they look for sites with large anchors, such as supermarkets. “One of the key things for us to look for is a retail store,” he explains. “Some sort of draw that brings traffic throughout the day.”

Jiwani says they hope to be able to offer a franchise product by late spring or early summer and have 12 to 15 BigFoot stores open by the end of the year. The overall plan, referred to as “50 x ’05,” is to have 50 stores open by 2005.

So far, Jiwani describes business as “phenomenal.” Daily sales are several multiples of the national average (about $400 a day) for drive-throughs, Jiwani says. The average tab is $4, he says.

The challenges, so far, are not unique to BigFoot. “The challenges are getting the locations, getting them financed, getting them built, and going through all the entitlements and challenges with the city,” Jiwani says, noting that a BigFoot Java® concepts costs about $200,000 to develop and build. “It all just takes time.”

Jiwani credits the burgeoning success of the chain to the management and development team. “We’ve got real estate expertise, we’ve got franchise expertise,” he says.

The investors’ background combines real estate with coffee, in addition to the sundry of business interests of the other investors. Jiwani’s primary business is real estate development, focusing on gas stations, convenience stores and car washes. He started the drive-through concept in 1998 by developing coffee stands in the parking lots of some of these businesses. The success of these drive-throughs spurred Jiwani to team with David Morris, owner of Dillanos Coffee Roasters, Sumner, Wash., and discuss the opportunity to develop a professional drive-through.

The group has also set up a marketing program that includes a customer loyalty program and prepaid gift cards. In addition, BigFoot Franchising Corporation instituted measures to enhance its future franchise program, including a planned training center to be built in Kent, Wash.

The drive-through industry is in a frenzy and many are very excited about the prospects. But Jiwani advises anyone who is considering opening a drive-through concept to stick to the fundamentals. Location, he says, is a big deal. Choose the right one and you’ve got it made. A wrong one and … well, Jiwani admits, “You put a BigFoot Java® in a secondary location, you’re going to get creamed.”

Specialty Coffee Retailer – February 2003