Drive-thru coffee shops: Are they profitable?

Aidan Gant
March 31, 2023
An image of a barista at a drive-thru coffee shop handing a consumer a takeaway coffee cup in an article on whether Drive-thru coffee shops are profitable

Drive-thru coffee shops are a fast-growing phenomenon in the UK, following fast in the footsteps of the ancestral home of the drive-thru, the USA.

According to a survey, prior to 2020, almost 50% of respondents claimed to have consumed drive-thru coffee within the last 24 hours. We can only expect this trend to have grown in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Establishments such as Red’s Giant Hamburg diner helped make drive-thrus an icon in the USA during the early 1950s. Red’s diner was the first location to offer drive-thru service in 1947.

The convenience and popularity of this service took a few decades to be picked up by the coffee industry. That said, the advent of the nineties reportedly brought the first drive-thru coffee shop to Portland, Oregon.

Read on to discover how profitable drive-thru coffee shops can be, and what equipment is required for a successful service. 

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The growing popularity of drive-thru coffee

With the launch of Motor Moka in 1990, the trend of drive-thru coffee spread more rapidly.

Notably, industry giants such as Starbucks and McDonald’s began selling drive-thru coffee from their kerbside locations in 1994 and 1993, respectively. 

In the UK, the nation’s largest coffee chain, Costa Coffee, opened its first UK drive-thru in 2011.

This was a feat yet to be replicated by an independent coffee shop in the UK until as late as 2020. 

The Covid-19 pandemic forced several businesses to adapt to a new paradigm with physical distancing measures brought in to inhibit the spread of the virus.

Bewiched Coffee in Northampton claims to have established the country’s very first independent drive-thru coffee shop.

That said, many others rapidly followed suit — drawing from similar necessary inspiration — and this claim is not undisputed.

The business maxim “convenience is king” appears to have been proven indisputably in the wake of covid-19. Therefore, the burgeoning popularity of drive-thru coffee shops seems set to continue with customers expecting dizzying new heights in terms of ease of access.

Another factor to consider in the success of drive-thru coffee is the enhanced availability of quality options. 

For modern coffee consumers, convenience no longer comes at the expense of quality. 

Notably, many specialty coffee shops, with the charge being led in Melbourne, Australia, are finding their drive-thru’s flourishing beyond the capacity of their sit-in offerings.

Batch-brew filter coffee, as well as espresso-based specialty coffee regulars, can be offered without restriction through a service hatch.

An image of a drive-thru coffee shop that offers speciality coffee options in an article on whether Drive-thru coffee shops are profitable

How profitable are drive-thru coffee shops?

When evaluating an existing business’s potential to thrive with a drive-thru model or venturing into the market, the first consideration should be the site. 

For instance, roasters will need to consider whether it is a feasible location in practical terms: is there enough space to accommodate a line of waiting cars without causing traffic?

More so, is there enough demand to sustain a new business or support the extra infrastructure and staff required to operate a drive-thru?

The key strength of a drive-thru coffee shop in terms of profitability should be its ability to turn over more customers in a shorter space of time. 

In theory, the capacity for seated customers is endless, as they bring their own and leave on it, and customers can enjoy their purchase off-premises. 

An efficient operation is essential in order for this enhanced turnover to be possible. 

This equates to an adequately staffed and well-organised team, an efficient workflow, and a carefully constructed business plan that limits waste as far as possible.

According to Zen Business, a well-run drive-thru coffee shop should be able to generate approximately $2,000 (or around £1,600) per day. With lower typical overhead costs than a drink-in business model, there is good potential for profit.

Particularly, a low-footprint example, such as a kiosk-based coffee shop, might provide opportunities for savings. These often come with smaller staffing costs and energy overheads than larger premises.

An image of a barista of a drive-thru coffee shop holding two takeaway coffee cups in a takeaway cup tray in an article on whether Drive-thru coffee shops are profitable

What equipment would a drive-thru coffee shop need?

Operating a drive-thru brings unique challenges to those usually present in traditional coffee shops. 

The biggest single expense is likely to be software. A robust and relatively sophisticated point of sale (POS) system is fundamental to an efficient drive-thru experience.

Beyond this, roasters are likely to need a sort of intercom system. Notably, these can be more cost-effective than one may expect. 

As 100% of orders will be takeaway, packaging becomes an even more vital consideration. 

Drive-thru coffee shops will need a good supply of takeaway coffee cups and lids, cup trays, and any food packaging appropriate to the menu offering.

Regarding food offerings, it is advisable to keep the range limited to grab-and-go items such as pastries. These can be served immediately with just a serviette and are unlikely to hold up the line. 

Since all the required cups and packaging will need to be disposable, it becomes more important than ever to consider their sustainability.

MTPak Coffee can provide you with sustainable, custom-printed coffee packaging, takeaway coffee cups, cup sleeves, and takeaway packaging made from sustainable materials, such as kraft paper, or PET with a PLA lining.

In addition to being 100% compostable, our cups are strong, waterproof, and lightweight. Our design team is also able to work with you to custom print your takeaway coffee packaging to your specifications.

At MTPak Coffee, we use innovative and eco-friendly digital printing technology with sustainable water-based inks that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and are highly resistant to abrasion, heat, and water.

Our range of cups is available in different sizes: 4 oz, 8 oz, 16 oz, 12 oz, and 24 oz. Each one is available to order as either single or double wall, while customisable sleeves are available for all three sizes.

We also offer a range of low minimum order quantity (MOQ) options. This means you can order as few as 500 fully customised units in just five working days.

For more information about sustainable takeaway cups that are suitable for drive-thru offerings, contact our team.

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