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Zooming Towards the Future

By Amelia C. Levy

The espresso habit is fully formed in a great deal of residents of east coast cities of the U.S., and its fetish has long been a “given” in the west. Recently, the beans have even made a respectable number of bleary-eyed sycophants of the rest of the country, evident as they wait in anticipation at the local shopping mall’s crowded Starbucks for that jolt from a latte.

In fact, in many areas, espresso drinks are not only in demand, but they border on being a need. No longer is relaxing for an hour in a hip coffeehouse with a good book the best part about going to one. Morning after morning, people will interrupt their commute so they can wait on long lines for their overpriced fix, dashing back into their car and speeding away to work - maybe a little late this time.

As the extra time between home and work gets shorter and shorter, if these customers all had an option of not getting out of the car at all, would they take it? Could espresso drive-thrus be the next logical step in the evolution of the coffee house? Perhaps.

While it has existed for over a decade, it is safe to say that the drive-thru concept is still in its infancy. While it has maintained a fairly substantial presence on the west coast, it is close to nonexistent in areas like the northeast., where, for instance, a couple or so opened and closed in Long Island, New York. But this is least likely the case because of a lack of interest on the part of the citizens of this area of the country. One reason may be because the drive-thru business owner’s main hurdle - government regulation - is extra high in these parts.

“As you come east and northeast, the regulations become much more stringent because of the weather conditions,” says Gail Blackman, vice president, cart and kiosk division of Kullman Industries. Located in Lebanon, New Jersey, Kullman Industries is a “design-build” firm which makes a wide range of turn-key modular drive-thrus which are pre-approved for the specific area in which it will be sold. “You absolutely cannot build in New York without meeting certain codes. [Elsewhere], you see these little outhouses, these little shacks. [However], there’s no way you can put up those kinds of things….People call us and ask, ‘can you do this for fifteen thousand dollars?’ Unfortunately, no, you cannot.” Inclement weather concerns cost money, and Blackman says sometimes people just don’t think about it. “In the east you’re going to need air conditioning and heat. These are things that people forget about.” But Blackman sees a definite migration of the entity towards this untapped geographical market: “It started on the west coast, it’s just been coming slowly to the midwest, and now it’s beginning to hit here.”

One probable misconception held about drive-thrus is that you can save money by building your own. For one thing, there are those multiple regulatory bodies by which a drive-thru unit must be approved - and the rules vary greatly from place to place. California (especially northern California), for instance, continues to be known as the hardest state to please with one general design, as each individual county has its own, specific rules.

Skip Grant, owner of QuixServ Industries in Grants Pass, Oregon, feels strongly about the difficulties people face should they choose to build their own structure on top of all this regulation: “They may not even be aware of it, but they are going to run into a tremendous amount of challenge in those areas that is either going to bankrupt them - or they’re going to wish that they were.”

Grant started his company four years ago, building in his driveway. He now supplies Dutch Bros. Coffee in Oregon with pre-approved drive-thrus. He describes the lengthy and often extremely daunting process of getting the structure itself approved: “In some areas you have to submit a set of engineered plans first - and chances are you’ve made such severe mistakes that you have to change it and get it re-engineered. All the trial and error…it’s almost impossible. What you think is right when you get started turns out to be a fiasco and you have to start all over again. If you really want a successful unit you should really buy it from someone who has been over the road and gotten all the bugs out.” Besides building codes, drive-thru owners must be ready to deal with the Board of Health, the Environmental Health Agency, Housing and Urban Development, any number of city zoning codes, the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the owner of the property on which they are going to set up the operation-with whom they must negotiate a lease.

As mentioned earlier, weather concerns also result in certain standards that must be met: for instance, the unit must be built to withstand high windloads in high hurricane areas like North Carolina, and roof reinforcement must be put in for snowy areas. Many areas of the country won’t even allow drive-thrus at all. According to one source, this reluctance may have originated in the early days of the drive-thru when there weren’t any specific rules for the new entity. He says a lot of mistakes were made by underfunded “mom and pop shops” that built their own and cut corners, poisoning the regulatory organizations’ views of this type of business.

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