DES MOINES, Iowa -- Nearly a year after Hy-Vee Food Stores installed a drive-through window in a unit on the south side of town, the chain is renewing its commitment to making the experiment work.
Cents-off coupons, direct-mail ads, a blitz of radio spot ads, 99-cent kids meals and free newspapers with a meal, have all been enlisted to help punch up business at the drive-through window.
And Hy-Vee, based in West Des Moines, is in the process of hiring a full-time manager who will be dedicated to the drive-through business, said Jamey Gifford, store director.
The current average volume through the window -- which is on the outside wall of a successful food court that seats 140 -- sounds low at 100 to 200 transactions a day. But Gifford said the chain is not disappointed with that volume. He also said recent promotion efforts are doubling that figure.
Through-the-window sales make up 14% of the store's food court/deli sales now, and Gifford's goal is to push that figure to 20%.
"This is a learning process for us. We didn't want things to go too fast while we were making adjustments. But now that we've got everything dialed in, we're ready to advertise it," Gifford said.
He went on to detail menu changes that Hy-Vee has made since the window was installed last June.
"We've modified our menu to give people what they want. We've added items and taken some away, and we've simplified the menu to make it easier to read," Gifford said.
The main thing Hy-Vee learned was that customers were buying dinner to take home, not snacks to eat in the car, Gifford said.
"When we put this together, we thought people would order items they could eat on the road, like chicken nuggets, but they were ordering Chinese food and you can't eat that on the road," Gifford said.
He stressed that this particular Hy-Vee has a from-scratch Chinese program that's very popular, and drive-through customers wanted a full menu of Chinese fare to choose from.
"At first, we just put a few of our most popular Chinese items on the drive-through menu, but people were asking for more. Now, we have the entire Chinese menu available at the window," Gifford said.
Items pulled from the menu include fresh fruits because they didn't sell, he added.
"We found that people are leaving work and coming here to pick up food to take home to their families. The busiest hours at the window are four to six in the evening," Gifford said. The window is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.
"What's amazing is we have customers who have standing orders. For example, they want to drive through at 7:30 in the morning and have their order waiting for them," he said.
Gifford said he's expecting the recent advertising campaign to boost the window's lunch and dinner business.
The drive-through window, Hy-Vee's first, was added at this store last June by building a small addition out into the parking lot. It's big enough to house coolers, a small hot case and a cappuccino machine, as well as a full-time associate, Gifford said.
"The window works just like the one at McDonald's," where there's a menu board outside and the customer talks into a microphone, Gifford said.
Besides the person stationed at the window, an additional associate, working in the food court, wears headphones through which the order is transmitted. During a busy period, that second associate helps get orders together.
"We have a fax machine in there, too, and people are using it more. For instance, 10 people in an office might fax an order in for Chinese food and then one person will drive over to pick it up," he said.
Gifford said Hy-Vee was careful to make handout menus look just like the menu board the customer sees when he drives up.
"We use exactly the same format so it'll be familiar to them. It's just that much easier to read; it's not confusing," he said.
Hy-Vee's Chinese fare is just part of the menu. It also includes pizza by the slice and by the pie, Mexican food, and items from the Hy-Vee Kitchen, such as roasted chicken and breakfast items.
The 62,000-square-foot replacement store, which opened two and half years ago, sits at the busiest intersection in Des Moines, Gifford said, at Southeast 14th Street and Park.
And it's situated in a spot that's less than five minutes from downtown. Indeed, it's less than five minutes from the state capitol.
"The house majority leader [in the Iowa state legislature] has publicly joked that many legislative decisions have been made in Hy-Vee's deli," Gifford said.
In addition to having small businesses and downtown offices nearby, the location is next to a residential area that is projected to be one of the fastest growing parts of the city, Gifford said.
The demographics and the location had a lot to do with Hy-Vee's decision to try a drive-through window at this spot, Gifford said.
"We know that people don't have a lot of time on their hands and we felt they would use this," he said, adding that that feeling has been bolstered with the revelation that people are obviously buying dinner to take home.
The competition, however, is stiff at this location. "I can walk out in the parking lot and see a Burger King, Godfather's Pizza, Long John Silver's and Hardee's, and they all have drive-throughs," Gifford said.
Gifford, pointing out that this project is still in a learning curve, said he didn't know if the drive-through concept would be rolled out to other Hy-Vee stores.
"We're building 12 to 15 stores a year and we'll be trying different new things in all of them," Gifford said.