Van Harvieux doesn’t care about the ambiance, tips or parking.
Each customer of his restaurant is behind a wheel. No one comes inside, no one sits down and no one dirties the tables for him to clean them.
“For me, COVID has been very difficult and very positive,” said Harvieux, as he handed an order through the window of Mudslingers Drive-Thru Coffee in Roseville.
The pandemic has been brutal for all kinds of restaurants in Minnesota. But those with windows driving have an advantage. Drive-thru businesses have grown steadily, although many sit-down restaurants have closed.
The suburbs are seeing an explosion of new construction of drive-throughs, including fast food chains and cafes. This is due in part to the ban on new drive-through services enacted by Minneapolis in 2019 – before COVID-19 made it a hot sector of the restaurant industry.
“Minneapolis may have gotten past that a little too soon,” said Liz Rammer, CEO of hospitality group Hospitality Minnesota.
The full-service category of American restaurants fell 30% between 2019 and 2020, according to QSR Magazine. But fast-food drive-ins are up 30% compared to March 2020 to March 2019, according to the New York Times.
Rammer said the effects of COVID have divided the restaurant industry.
“Right now it’s a mixed bag,” she said.
Restaurants are also affected by supply chain disruptions, rising food prices, labor shortages and lingering concerns about wearing masks.
‘A LOT OF INJURED HERE’
Half of all restaurants in Minnesota couldn’t pay rent in November. Rammer said: “You don’t have to look that far to see a lot of injured there.”
But the pain is not felt as badly by drive-ins.
They’ve been so successful that some companies are experimenting with concepts that eliminate in-store meals.
Four lanes of cars will drive into the new Taco Bell Defy restaurant that will open in Brooklyn Center next summer. A second floor kitchen will reduce orders via small elevators to customers below.
An experimental Caribou Coffee with drive-thru opens at Cottage Grove this month. Called the Caribou Cabin, the smaller building will not have seats inside.
Woodbury now has 17 drive-thru restaurants. Some are on sit-dead restaurant sites, like a Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers where the Craft Beer & Kitchen used to be, and a Starbucks planned at a famous Dave’s former site.
“THERE IS A CLEAR NEED”
Unlike Minneapolis, Woodbury welcomes drive-ins. Senior city planner Eric Searles doesn’t see them as competition with sit-down restaurants.
“There is clearly a need for both. They are different needs, ”Searles said.
Searles said drive-thru benefits an entire neighborhood by generating traffic, so more drivers are aware of nearby businesses.
At Mudslingers on November 18, owner Harvieux didn’t seem to be in pain. In fact, he was having fun, shoveling coffee drinks out of the car’s two windows as fast as his two baristas could.
“On weekends, the lines are in the parking lot and on the road,” he said, stopping to give a customer a cappuccino on a bicycle.
He started the business in 2015, with no idea that a pandemic would contribute to the success of his business.
He still has problems, but the money is not one of them. He has cut hours by 30 percent due to a labor shortage and is worried about supply chain issues. COVID could make its workers sick at any time, even though they are all wearing masks in the crowded store.
But business has never been better and Harvieux is making the most of every minute.
“I love the relationships you can build through that window,” he said, handing a latte to a customer. “When people come for coffee, they are always happy. “