HT talks with Raj Patel, President of the Hari Group, a multi-unit operator for Dunkin. Hari also operates McAlister’s Deli and Tide Dry Cleaners locations. Patel grew up in the restaurant industry and signed his first territory deal in 2010.
HT: Drive-thrus have been in demand in recent months. How many have drive-thru locations do you operate?
Patel: I now operate 55 Dunkin’s in total, with 45 of them having a drive-thru. The majority of our locations are in the Chicago suburbs. (Last year Hari Group relocated an inline, no drive-thru location to an end cap drive-thru on the AM side of the road in Wheaton, Ill.)
HT: What trends have you noticed?
Patel: Now more than ever, customers are on the go and really care about speed of service. I don’t think that was necessarily even started by the pandemic because I noticed it before, but the circumstances of the pandemic certainly fueled that trend even more. It has really pushed us to elevate our brand because the reliance on drive-thru has increased drastically. Another trend that has resulted from the pandemic is the increase in order size. We’ve had to keep the same high speed service in our drive-thrus while meeting much larger order sizes, so that was a challenge, but I’m proud to say we have risen to the occasion and have been able to optimize our drive-thru operations to adapt to this change in ticket size.
HT: Did you add curbside? How was that received?
Patel: We’ve tested curbside at a few of our non-drive-thru locations, but haven’t felt the need yet to introduce it to our whole portfolio. For the most part we’re relying on drive-thru and keeping our operations at a high level, as opposed to introducing something new. The high-volume brewers have helped, as they’ve been able to keep drive thru times low.
HT: Are your stores now open for walk-in customers?
Patel: ...Our stores closed for walk-ins when the pandemic began, and for the most part have remained closed. In a few of our Indiana locations we’ve reopened lobbies for carry out. We have two drive-thru locations that we also opened for carry out in Chicago, but the rest remain closed.
HT: What trends have you noticed in terms of mobile app usage? Perks enrollment? Are your customers using it more during C19? Or the same?
Patel: We’re definitely seeing a spike in app usage. Customers have been using the app almost twice as much, and the orders are much larger tickets than they used to be. We’ve also noticed customers using the payment option on the app more as well, allowing them to be contact and cash free when they drive up to the payment window. I’d say all digital aspects of the Dunkin’ experience have been getting more use because of the pandemic.
HT: Did you offer third-party delivery? Have you noticed increase demand for delivery amongst your customers?
Patel: Yes, my locations were actually some of the first adapters to UberEats and DoorDash and we made that transition about a year ago. By now, we’re on all the delivery platforms that are available in our geographical areas. There is absolutely an uptick in the demand for delivery. While we’ve definitely seen an opportunity for more sales through delivery, the key has just been to make sure we’re making profitable sales.
HT: What tech solutions, if any, did you add this year?
Patel: We didn’t add anything new tech wise, we just continued using those third-party delivery apps, the Dunkin’ app, and the On-the-Go feature. Right now we’re in the early stages of testing some new drive-thru tech options, because our current goal is to make sure that experience is as tech savvy and flawless as possible for both the customers and for my teams.
HT: How do you communicate with your staff with stores closed?
Patel: We were very lucky in that we didn’t close down any stores permanently, we only had a few that closed temporarily. Communication has changed so much over six months because we used to be able to have these team management conversations in the store as a group, but that’s no longer our method. We rely a lot on Zoom, Webex, and GroupMe to keep the messaging constant and to host any one-on-one meetings that would have normally been held in-store. We had already implemented Zoom and WebEx 2 years ago because it was just more convenient, so my teams are used to it.
HT: How has your staff training changed?
Patel: Luckily, Dunkin’ already had a pretty solid online training platform, which they’ve improved drastically over the past few years. Before those programs, we had to do in-person group trainings, but now there is much more technology involved and it can be a much more singular experience for the trainee. For example, if there’s a new latte recipe, our employees can just watch the training video and there is no group environment needed. That’s been very helpful in keeping our trainings up to speed while also ensuring safety. With our teams in-store, we have been very cautious to make sure that people stay in their designated position and aren’t jumping from different touchpoints.
HT: In recent weeks, we've see brands including Burger King and Taco Bell and Noodles reveal their future store designs, which focus on off prem and smaller dine-in areas. What’s your vision for future locations?
Patel: We are definitely going to look at shrinking our square footage and focus mainly on carryout and drive-thru. What we’ve seen from this pandemic is that Dunkin’ customers are very willing to use the drive-thru, and it was not a difficult transition for them, so we want to put our dollars towards drive-thru innovation in the future to capitalize on that.
HT: In general, what tech do you think is the most underutilized in restaurants today?
Patel: The most underutilized tech that restaurants should be leveraging is definitely line-busting tablets as well as any other forms of mobile ordering. These improve speed drastically.
HT: What has the most promise for the future?
Patel: When I think about the future I see mobile ordering as having the most promise. It generally has a higher ticket and it is easier for the consumer to do. On our end, it is more efficient, as the order goes directly to the kitchen and speeds things up.