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HT Talks Tech with Clutch Coffee Co-Founder Darren Spicer

The Carolinas-based drive-thru coffee shop is on track to scale from 10 locations to 20 in 2025.
Clutch Coffee Exteriior
The Carolinas-based drive-thru coffee shop is on track to scale from 10 locations to 20 in 2025.

HT caught up with Darren Spicer, Co-Founder of Clutch Coffee

How long have you been with the company?  

Founded the company 6 years ago in 2018.

Give me a brief overview of the concept. Has drive-thru always been part of the concept?  

Yes. With our society always 'on-the-go,' we feel that a QSR drive-thru presents the biggest opportunity for growth, and we structured our business around that. We are a drive-thru centric concept that focuses on delivering an amazing, quick and premium drive-thru experience in the Carolinas.  We focus on excellent operational pull-thru to help get customers caffeinated and on their way! We've grown to 10 locations across North and South Carolina and anticipate growing to double that by the end of 2025.

Do your locations have an off-prem/ walk-up pickup area?  

Most locations do also offer a walk-up area that will function as a mobile order pick-up spot in the future.

A few brands are embracing voice AI in the drive-thru. What are your thoughts on this type of technology? Is it something you might add in the future?   

There is a push in the industry to find innovative ways to harness the power of AI and its potential impact on the QSR space. We believe in the power of AI and use it in different ways within our business, but we are on the other end of the spectrum compared to brands such as Panera in terms of using AI to replace human and customer interactions.  At Clutch, we have a 'runner' taking orders outside, face to face, on an iPad.  This genuine human interaction is part of our core value prop, and we can actually be more efficient (and accurate) taking orders directly outside, while making a positive difference in someone's day.  We pride ourselves on being customer-centric and place a premium on face-to-face human interaction and look to balance technology while maintaining a human touch. 

How is Clutch Coffee using AI?  What do you see as its benefits and limitations?  

We use AI for design creation in a few different ways.  From our apparel designs to monthly sticker creations, AI is a fantastic tool to help us think outside the box and come up with some amazing concepts.

Unlike some other QSR brands, we do not use AI for order-taking purposes.  We believe in the element of human interaction, and also believe our process of taking orders outside is more efficient than having someone pull up to a speaker box.


Darren Spicer Co-Founder Clutch Coffee working the drive-thru
Darren Spicer, co-founder of Clutch Coffee, focuses on employee retention and limiting turnover as much as possible.

According to a National Restaurant Association operator survey in 2023, 79% of operators report that they don't have enough employees to meet customer demand (39% said their staffing levels are off by more than 20%). And 44% say they’ve reduced seating capacity. How did this phenomenon factor into the company's decision to continue to focus on the drive-thru?  

This wasn't a driving factor in our focus on drive-thru.  We face some of the same staffing challenges others do. Simply put, there is a shortage of quality people available in the workforce.  We aim to focus on employee retention and limiting turnover as much as possible. We aim to invest into our team as much as possible with a tip guarantee program and other incentives.  

What are you doing to build brand loyalty?  

Several approaches starting with our loyalty program and our app, which helps drive specific promos and offers.  We are also working to in-fill certain geographies to raise brand awareness and increase overall loyalty. We do a lot of work around community impact in every market we launch in, holding proceeds days for the local high schools and donating coffee to community services. Our Clutch Cares program has donated over $72,000 thus far. 

Would you give an example of a "specific promo"?  

A specific promo example would be one that is triangulated to a specific store only.  If we have a slower store that needs to be stimulated from a sales perspective, we can roll out a campaign that only reaches that stores' audience (based on the consumer setting their 'home location' on the app).  

How are you gleaning actionable insights from data? 

We utilize data to better understand who our core customer is, how they behave, what other places they visit, and more.  It helps us better understand what they like at Clutch as well, so we can aim to continue focusing efforts on our most popular drinks. 

And how does that feed future digital guest engagement?  

It helps drive promo-centric items being featured in our app and also helps dictate what we should be showing in our targeted social ads.

Regarding data and actionable insights, are you using first- and third-party data?  

Mostly first at this time, although we are undertaking a project on cell phone data as well that will give us insights into our customer segment that we currently don't have.

Do you leverage a CDP or does your loyalty program enable you to segment and push out personalized offers?  

We can send out personalized offers based on many different triangulated factors.

What role do these personalized offers and promotions play in driving digital engagement? Now and in the future?   

We aim to have customers be driven to our app as their central place to get all updates and offers for Clutch.  Having personalized offers provides the feeling of exclusivity and personal touch, and that is important for us as we aim to elevate our relationship with each customer.  

What's next that you can tell me about?   

We are excited to launch mobile ordering in the next 30 days!  This is a big opportunity for us to make our offering even more cohesive with customers and their ever-changing needs. As more and more companies are requiring their employees to be in-office, QSR brands that can dominate speed and ease of access will separate themselves. Mobile ordering will continue to push in this space and finding ways to ‘make it easy’ for someone to order and get their food/beverage will be a top priority for us.

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