Can Starbucks be a third place when its drive-through is so full?

Starbucks aspires to be a third place, a setting where people of different backgrounds can gather in between home and work. Coffee shops, and restaurants more broadly, can play this role as people need to eat and drink and such activity is often tied to social interaction.

In my morning commute, I pass a Starbucks in front of a strip mall and right next to a busy suburban road. The drive-through line is always very full. The size of the line is particularly noticeable in this location because once the Starbucks line has more than eight cars, it spills over into the roadway through the shopping center and can block traffic.

The inside of this location is attractive. A month ago, I spent a morning working there. The store had dark walls and what looked like a tin ceiling plus a variety of seating options (tables, upholstered chairs, work counters). A steady flow of people came in and out and there were at least a few others like me hunkered down for several hours doing work. From my working location inside, all morning I could see the steady flow of people going through the drive-through.

Can a coffee shop or any restaurant so dependent on drive-through traffic for business (think McDonald’s) truly be a gathering spot, a social space, a third place? Perhaps the issue is much bigger than Starbucks:

1. Businesses do need to make money. Starbucks has encountered this problem before with people and visitors who might restrict or limit sales. Not having a drive-through is a bold statement but might not be financially viable (or might not generate the kind of revenue Starbucks desires).

2. The suburbs require driving (and many Americans seem to like it this way). Starbucks locations in denser settings do not have drive-throughs and perhaps they can better function as third places.

3. American fast food combines the ability to drive and getting food quickly. Without a drive-through, Starbucks is both missing out on business and putting itself into a different category of place.

4. Americans in general may not like third places given their preferences for single-family homes and private dwellings alongside their devotion to work. Any business or restaurant trying to fight against this may not make much progress. Even if people come to Starbucks or similar locations, how many engage with the people around them as opposed to focusing on their own work or interacting with a companion who came with them or who met they there? Public spaces where people come together are rare.

Maybe Starbucks can only be a third place in a certain kind of location with denser populations and less reliance on cars. Or, perhaps Starbucks can never really be a third place in a society dominated by driving and quick food.

Fast food restaurants move from one-size-fits-all architecture to “curated” design

Americans often can recognize a McDonald’s or Taco Bell anywhere in the country with their familiar architecture. This may be changing:

“What is different now from what we used to do is we are breaking away from a one-size-fits-all model and going to more flexibility, more variations, to end up with a more curated approach,” says Deborah Brand, Taco Bell’s vice president of development and design. Taco Bell has spent the past two years rethinking its restaurant design, and Taco Bell Cantina is just one result. “I think it’s a different approach to value,” Brand says. “We’ve always known that we have inexpensive food that is craveable, but we also look at value as serving the same food at the same price point in a potentially much more elevated dining environment.”…

Many other fast-food chains—“quick-service restaurants,” or QSR, in industry parlance—are doing the same. Restaurants from McDonald’s to KFC to Starbucks are rethinking their spaces inside and out, in a wave of design interventions that, given the sheer number of these restaurants, will spread throughout the U.S. These designs are setting a new standard for the commercial landscape, guiding the look and feel of the stores and restaurants on our streets and in our daily routines….

A quirk of designing for chains with thousands of restaurants and global marketing campaigns means that the design of the physical spaces often has to align with the image of the restaurant being portrayed in advertisements. In recent years, the KFC brand has built its advertising campaigns around an updated interpretation of the chain’s white-haired founder and human mascot, the long-deceased Colonel Harland Sanders, playing on his Southern gentleman character, while also making him, and the restaurant he represents, a little feisty. McCauley and FRCH were tasked with redesigning the restaurants to reflect this new attitude…

Today, in the era of the Taco Bell Cantina, the chain has diversified its approach to design, shifting far away from this signature building style. But branding through architecture is still a strategy used by some fast-food chains. Take the white castle-shaped buildings of the White Castle brand, for instance, or the sloping, hat-shaped red roof of the Pizza Hut chain. In its early years, McDonald’s required that its franchised restaurants use the famed “golden arches,” two parabola-shaped yellow bands on each end of the building that became a form of physical advertising. Now, for reasons such as cost and flexibility, brands are putting less emphasis on highly defined ornamental architecture and paying more attention to the experience of the customer, both in the drive-thru and inside the building.

This has the potential to both make the structures more attractive to certain demographics – and it sounds like the young adult consumer is in the crosshairs – while disrupting a common experience across locations. Are smaller branding elements like logos enough to carry the architecture if it varies quite a bit across locations? Might this chase away older consumers who are used to a particular aesthetic?

Another thought: some of this change may be in response to local guidelines where communities are more resistant to typical fast food restaurants which are viewed as lower-class. There are plenty of McDonald’s and other fast food locations that adhere to local design standards to fit in with the streetscape. Imagine you are a big city and McDonald’s wants to open a new location: would you prefer a standard looking restaurant or something unique that does not immediately scream McDonald’s?

Suburban settings and McDonald’s filmed in Georgia

The new film The Founder tells of the founding of McDonald’s and involves a number of suburban sites – that were all recreated in Georgia:

Because of their limited budget and ultrafast 34-day shooting schedule, the filmmakers had to be resourceful in showing McDonald’s restaurants all over the United States, without actually leaving Georgia.

So, they repurposed their “Des Plaines” building.

“When you see Schaumburg, when you see Minneapolis, when you see all the McDonald’s from around the country, those are subtle reworkings of only one set,” Corenblith said.

“Just by changing the parking lot stripes configuration, it was a very subtle way to tell the audience that, no, this isn’t the place you just saw because the cars are now parked perpendicularly and not diagonally or parallel.”

Corenblith’s eye for authentic detail fooled even Keaton. He assumed the crew had found an old McDonald’s restaurant and rehabbed it for the film shoot.

The magic of Hollywood…or the similarities in suburban settings?

This movie may be worth seeing just to consider the American suburban lifestyle. Would McDonald’s and other fast food companies exist without it? Fast food takes perfect advantage of a number of factors: suburbanites need to/want to drive, all that driving means it would be convenient to eat along the way, fast food restaurants are often located at busy intersections or along busy roads, the dining experience is standardized, and the reasonable prices appeal to the middle class. No suburbs, likely no McDonald’s or a very different kind of McDonald’s.

Pizza Hut buildings with new uses

What happens to Pizza Hut buildings around the world once they are no longer home to the pizza chain?

Many of the vintage red roof buildings have been repurposed. Tran and Cahill, aren’t the first to notice or even document this change, but their photos nevertheless offer a fascinating glimpse at the weird ways these buildings are being used now.

They’ve found old huts reincarnated as Asian restaurants, dry cleaners, liquor stores, churches, and even funeral homes. Google Maps helped find locations, and online communities of hut fans have provided invaluable help since the started the project in 2013.

The pair, based in Sydney, has logged about 8,700 miles photographing almost 100 locations. They covered Australia and New Zealand before taking a great American “pizza hunt” road trip. They travelled through California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, just to name a few states. Wherever they went, Cahill and Tran made a point of getting to know the locals and getting the scoop on a building’s history. “In Chicago, we made a phone call to a business because we weren’t sure if it was a legitimate hut, and a very helpful store clerk gave us a full history of the building dating back to ’91,” Cahill says.

The fast food/restaurant experience is not just about the food but also includes the building and their architecture. Looking at the images from their book Pizza Hunt, it doesn’t take much imagine to them as functioning outlets of a global brand. I wonder if this previous architecture helps or hinders the new occupants. For example, does turning an old Pizza Hut building into a church (image 10/10) bring in more or less people? Does the Asian food (images 1/10 and 4/10) taste any different in such a building? I’m guessing the architecture and design may have little effect on later behavior and attitudes; perhaps this really says something about our approach in constructing functional, suburban buildings where one of the top priorities is that it can be easily adapted to numerous uses.

“The Underappreciated Architecture of Waffle House”

Waffle House recently announced plans for a fancier new building in New Orleans. One journalist suggests this undervalues the chain’s existing architecture:

Waffle House is not Chartres Cathedral, admittedly, but it has a certain architectural je ne sais quoi. The classic Waffle House is minimalist in design, with a lemon-yellow strip running around the top, above a wide band of windows and, often, a red or red-striped awning. The interior is outfitted with retro globe lights and red-and-chrome stools. Unlike most fast-food joints, Waffle House has an open kitchen, so you can watch the cooks as they scatter and smother your hash browns…

New Orleanians will be excited to get a Waffle House in Mid-City, and I would never begrudge them that. But this new design is all wrong for Waffle House as a brand, and falls short of its status as a Southern icon.

The company owes that status to an architect you’ve never heard of, Clifford A. Nahser. A World War II veteran and Georgia Tech graduate, Nahser was still a fledgling architect when Waffle House co-founder Joe Rogers Sr. approached him for help designing his prototype diner in Avondale Estates, near Atlanta. As the chain grew, Nahser went on to design hundreds more restaurants, drawing up the plans in his basement after his day job at Atlanta Public Schools…

What bothers me is not that Waffle House feels it’s time for a change (maybe it is) so much as the direction they’ve chosen. As the “loft” aesthetic has permeated American culture, we’re seeing watered-down faux-warehouse details in outposts of Chipotle and Starbucks, and that is the style we see here. It’s as generic as the classic Waffle House look is distinctive. Couldn’t the company have hired an architect known for his or her use of bold color to bring more of a pop sensibility?

There seem to be two main issues at play here:

1. How much should restaurant chains (and for that matter, retail chains as well) look alike or different? Waffle House has a very recognizable logo as well as a common design aesthetic. How much does this help the brand in terms of sales, nostalgia, recognition? Does a chain benefit from looking significantly different than other chains or should there be some similarity so people feel they can comfortably cross over?

2. How much do architectural movements – here, a more minimalistic and modernist design – get translated into fast food restaurants? I’ve argued before that Americans don’t particularly like modernist homes but perhaps this kind of modernist architecture is associated with a particular industry (fast food) that arose in the post-World War II era of prosperity and highways. The architecture and landscape of interstates and suburban sprawl is often criticized so how many people would defend the look of Waffle House?

“Eating plays a central role in both civility and civilization” vs. a fast food society

According to this argument, perhaps we should worry less about addiction to smartphones and more about how we eat:

There are four clear threats to the modern family and possibly civilization at large; cell phones, video games, the internet, and junk food. We allow the first three because they are cheaper than tutors, private schools, and nannies. Indeed, games and gadgets support a kind of electronic autism where neither parent nor child speaks to each other until the latter is old enough to drive. With junk food the threat is more complicated; a fusion of chemistry and culture. In combination, internet social networks and poor diets seem to be conspiring to produce a generation of pudgy, lazy mutes with short attention spans.

Culture begins and ends on a plate. A proper wake is followed by good food and drink for good reason; a testament to life even without the guest of honor. We eat to live and then we live to eat. From the earliest times, food played a key role in the spiritual and literal growth of families and a larger society. An infant bonds with its mother while nursing; families bond when they share food. We define hospitality with friends by inviting them to break bread – or share a refreshing adult beverage. Alas, eating plays a central role in both civility and civilization.

Contrast this elevated role for food versus the fast food approach common in the United States. I recently led a discussion in my introduction to sociology class about the social forces that lead to having a fast food society where around one-quarter of American adults eat fast food each day. Here are some of the ideas we came up with:

-Americans don’t have time for food preparation and eating as we are too busy doing/prioritizing other things.

-Fast food is cheap (particularly in the short-term) and convenient.

-Food is the United States is more about finding sustenance or nutritional content as opposed to sociability. (I’m thinking of Michael Pollan’s work here.)

-Americans love cars and driving and what could be better than going to a restaurant without ever having to get of the car? (Imagine the outcry if more communities like this one in South Dakota bans eating while driving.)

-Fast food is made possible by changes in the industry where it is now easier to draw upon food sources from all over the world. (The book Fast Food Nation does a nice job describing some of this process.)

-Fast food places offer a homogenized and familiar experience.

-There is a lot of money to be made in fast food.

In other words, there are a variety of social factors that influence why and how we eat. There are not easy fixes to changing a fast food society.