Chick-fil-A thinks the future of fast food isn't in the restaurant; it's in your living room.
Last week, the company opened up two prototype restaurants devoted exclusively to fulfilling delivery and catering orders. Over the summer, the company started testing out a meal kit service.
Chick-fil-A believes people think about food the way they think about shopping: Why go to a store when you can order online? To stay ahead of that trend, Chick-fil-A is getting creative about how to reach people at home, work and parties — and it's miles ahead of the competition.
"Our mission is to be convenient," said Luke Pipkin, who works on innovation within the company's Beyond the Restaurant team, which is dedicated to exploring off-premise opportunities like delivery, catering and meal kits.
The new restaurants don't have dining rooms, so the locations have larger kitchens. They're also cash-free: Customers have to use DoorDash or a credit or debit card. Chick-fil-A encourages customers to order directly from its mobile app. And Chick-fil-A put the locations by highways and major roads in Nashville and Louisville to facilitate deliveries.
That makes the test locations "pretty differentiated from our regular restaurants," Pipkin said.
Chick-fil-A isn't alone: All fast food companies are trying to figure out ways to reach people at home and get more customers to use their apps.
Nearly two-thirds of consumers say that more fast food restaurants should offer delivery and takeout options, according to research company Mintel. And 46% said that they'd be more inclined to pick up an order from a restaurant if there was a dedicated pick-up area.
Mintel also found that in the three months ending in September, 27% of people surveyed said they ordered delivery directly from a restaurant online or through an app, and 13% said they ordered delivery from a third party.
The "off-premise business is really booming within the food service sector," said Amanda Topper, associate director of foodservice research at Mintel.
Chick-fil-A is well ahead of the curve. While the chicken chain is going cashless and opening restaurants without dining rooms, competitors are working on streamlining their digital pickup areas and using promotions to raise awareness for their apps.
"They've seemed to be deploying a number of innovations ahead of the industry," said Melissa Wilson, a principal with the food service consulting company Technomic.
Plus, catering is an important part of the restaurant's business. About "14% of Chick-fil-A customers try Chick-fil-a for the first time through catering," said Pipkin.
Overall, Chick-fil-A's methods are working.
The chain has grown "exponentially" in recent years, said Wilson. Chick-fil-A is a private company, so its sales figures aren't public, but Technomic's research found that Chick-fil-A generated $9 billion in sales in 2017. Three years before that figure was about $5.8 billion, Wilson said.
"They test things very carefully," she added. "They are very thoughtful."
Customers love Chick-fil-A. In a sector where customers tend to be brand-agnostic, "they benefit from having a really strong brand loyalty," said Topper.
That may be why the brand is comfortable testing out creative concepts, she said. Customers are likely to stick with Chick-fil-A even if the meal kits or new locations are a flop.
The company is moving slowly, for now. Meal kits are being offered for just a few months in Atlanta. Once the test ends, in mid-November, Chick-fil-A will decide if and how to move forward.
The company plans to open more catering- and delivery-only restaurants next year, Pipkin said.
If Chick-fil-A is successful, other companies may follow its lead, Topper said. "When one operator ... makes that move, others follow."