The sample size is small and Cywinski would like more geographic dispersion before assessing the true ROI, Adding the window could cost $100,000, depending on the market, and the drive-thru lane does remove some parking spots.
But Applebee’s has seen significant operational and financial benefits.
“In cold weather geography, you really don't have to deal with weather anymore,” Cywinski says. “I don't have to have team members going out to a car. I can operate later at night because there's less concern about safety after it gets dark.”
Off-premises remains a focal point for Applebee’s, even as the U.S. approaches the two-year anniversary of the global pandemic. Sales outside the four walls mixed 26.7 percent in the fourth quarter. Average off-premises weekly sales were $13,800 in Q4, more than double pre-pandemic and only $500 fewer than Q4 2020, a time when a large number of dining rooms were restricted.
Applebee’s earned about $1 billion in off-premises sales in 2021. Of the roughly 27 percent mix, 14 percent is carside and 13 percent is delivery.
“We believe in digital, and most of our off-premises orders come to us digitally,” Cywinski says. “Candidly, we have phenomenal team members, servers, bartenders, kitchen cooks, but the core competency isn't answering the telephone and taking orders. That's not really what we want them doing. So we're trying to convert all of our guests to order food to-go—whether it's to-go or delivery—to do it through our call center or to do it online. Therefore, our team members of the restaurant can stay focused on executing what they do really well.”
In 2021, Applebee’s launched virtual concept Cosmic Wings to appeal to its Gen Z and millennial audience, which makes up about 52 percent of the customer base. The digital brand started on Uber Eats, but was forced to take a brief hiatus because it couldn’t gather enough wings from the supply chain to meet demand.
Cosmic Wings is back in full force and expanding to DoorDash, the largest of the third-party delivery providers. In April, it will be on Grubhub.
“At that point in time I'll know with pretty good precision the size of Cosmic Wings’ opportunity, but it's incremental, it's targeted, it's cool, and our guests love it,” Cywinski says.