HT Talks Tech: Southern Classic Chicken Doubles Down on Drive Thru

HT caught up with Southern Classic Chicken’s VP of Brand Operations Tom Gerdes to talk about its new drive-thru prototype and its future tech plans.
Anna Wolfe
Senior Editor, Restaurants
wolfe

Hospitality Technology (HT) caught up with Southern Classic Chicken’s VP of Brand Operations Tom Gerdes to talk about its new drive-thru prototype and its future tech plans.

Southern Classic Chicken
Southern Classic Chicken's new prototype features a drive-thru, a walk-up window and new branding.
southern classic chicken drive thru
Southern Classic Chicken is known for its namesake product and Southern sides.

In April 2023, Southern Classic Chicken opened its new prototype in Bossier City, Louisiana. It features a refreshed brand image with updated colors and logos.    

Southern Classic Chicken is poised for further expansion in 2024, buoyed by the successful integration of a new hybrid construction model, which promises faster build times and cost efficiency by leveraging building sections that are constructed off-site and then shipped to the location. Four locations are scheduled to open in 2024 with the new look, including a relocation in El Dorado, Arkansas.  

HT:  Tell us about the Southern Classic Chicken concept.

Southern Classic Chicken’s VP of Brand Operations Tom Gerdes: Southern Classic Chicken has been a family institution in North Louisiana for more than 35 years. When the concept was first introduced in 1989 by chicken industry veteran Leon Fanning, his brother Howard and his son Brandon Fanning, they wanted it to offer four things: quality, the absolute best fried chicken, classic southern sides and cajun seasoned french fries. And they wanted to do it through a simple drive-thru and walk-up model. Today, Southern Classic Chicken is a second-generation family-run franchise business, with Alan (Howard's son), as well as Brandon and Alex (Leon's sons), at the helm.

Over the years, the company has expanded in the Southern U.S. and now includes 17 corporate locations... In 2019, Southern Classic Chicken decided to expand .... Franchising efforts have started, and future expansion is underway.  

HT: Tell us about the locations. Is there in-store seating in addition to the walk-up window and drive-thru?   

Gerdes: We used to build Southern Classic Chicken restaurants with dining rooms, particularly in small-town settings where the demand for dine-in seats is higher. We’ve made the deliberate choice to focus on the combination drive-thru/walk-up model to simplify operations and reduce the footprint size of our restaurants. Executing our drive-thrus efficiently is paramount, and the best way for us to drive traffic and create customer trust and loyalty is through efficiency and our ability to engage them through ‘quick connections’ which is what we call hospitality in a high-speed environment.

HT: What trends are you observing in the industry when it comes to drive-thrus? 

Gerdes: We’re seeing some of the big QSR players start to design or retrofit buildings to become more drive-thru friendly. If that growth did stagnate after consumer’s need to get out-and-about post-COVID eased, the benefits of the drive-thru model are certainly being revisited throughout the industry.

HT:  Brands such as Checkers & Rally's, Panera Bread, Jersey Mike's  and Good Times are using or piloting the use of voice AI in the drive-thru to help automate the ordering process so that staff can focus on other tasks such as customer service and food production. What are your thoughts on this type of technology? 

Gerdes:  We haven't looked into opportunities with enhanced artificial intelligence applications when it comes to our operations.  It's certainly gaining a lot of momentum and something we will explore when the fit is right for us.

HT: According to a National Restaurant Association operator survey (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 focus on the drive-thru prototype? Was this a factor?  Does this help your franchisees operate with fewer staff?    

Gerdes: We have a slightly different view of staffing than others may have.  It's our experience that there are plenty of people to work.  The challenge is finding the right people to work in terms of culture fit in each of our restaurants.  Do they have similar values that we have? If they do, they stand to be very successful during their tenure with us.

HT: What can restaurants do to leverage their walk-up and drive-thru models to serve more customers efficiently and reduce dine-in congestion?

Gerdes: The drive-thru/walk-up models are designed ultimately for the convenience of the consumer in mind. Maximizing flow through is a ‘dance’ combining the right people in the right places running simplified and optimized processes. There’s not a single answer but rather a careful grouping of sustainable elements to make a drive-thru line move quickly in the consumer’s mind.

HT: What are you doing to build brand loyalty?

Gerdes: Along with actively creating an exceptional drive-thru experience, we are also exploring a more formal way to reward customers who dine with us frequently. A program like this would serve as an additional revenue stream and would further support us with delivering on our Mission, Vision & Values.

HT: What's next that you can talk about?

Gerdes:  With fully integrating our legacy restaurants with Focus POS in mid-2023, we launched our brand-wide gift card program in late 2023 just in time for the holidays. We are also exploring more integrations for additional revenue streams including a formal loyalty program and online ordering.

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