To give customers another shopping option during the crisis, an area company brainstormed different options before landing on a drive-thru. It already has customers asking if the service will stay post-pandemic.
It’s time for the classic fast-food refrain — “You want fries with that?” — to move over. These days, it’s, “You want cantaloupe with that?”
The coronavirus has caused companies around the country to adapt quickly. Among the adapters? Sarasota-based Detwiler’s Farm Market, with four stores in Sarasota County and one in Manatee. The company recently launched a drive-thru for customers to pull up, hand in an order and get food — including a cantaloupe — loaded into their car within minutes.
‘They pull up, and we take their order like a fast-food restaurant.’ — Sam Detwiler, Detwiler’s Farm Market
The company now has a drive-thru at three of its stores — Palmetto, Venice and Clark Road — which required staffing and physical changes to get operational. “Our facility team has been working virtually around the clock to make it happen,” President Sam Detwiler says.
Detwiler’s has watched buying habits shift since increased demand started at the beginning of March. In the past few weeks, sales have gone up while foot traffic has gone down. Normally, Detwiler’s customers shop two or three times a week. Now it’s different. “Each customer is shopping less, but when they come, they’re spending more money,” Detwiler says.
Sales are strong for certain items, such as potatoes, onions and carrots, which last longer and are considered value choices. But despite empty shelves have been common elsewhere, Detwiler’s hasn’t experienced widespread shortages. “We have really good suppliers,” Detwiler says. “We have really good relationships.”
Some items have been tougher to keep in stock, such as immune-building items. The company now restricts the amount of toilet paper and paper towels people can buy, like most other grocers. “For the most part with supply and demand, we were able to follow it pretty close,” he says.
Because foot traffic has been going down, Detwiler’s wanted to come up with a different way to serve customers. The leadership team thought about selling boxes filled with items for a flat price. But with so many food sensitivities and consumer preferences, that posed issues. They also considered opening a call center to take phone orders. But they worried about calls dropping and other technical problems. Then they started brainstorming about a drive-thru service.
For the drive-thru order form, instead of trying to cram the whole store onto a form, they chose their top 140 or so items and added some pantry items. The form changes daily, and products cost the same as they do in stores, with no additional fees. To pick up food, customers drive into designated lanes near the store. “They pull up, and we take their order like a fast-food restaurant,” Detwiler says.
For each drive-thru, Detwiler’s hired 20 to 25 temporary workers. Employees take the order form from customers and bring it inside, where a team helps assemble, scan and verify items. The food is organized in the stores’ backrooms, and employees take items from numbered bins that correspond to numbers on the form.
Detwiler’s has also offered such items as local cantaloupe and watermelon as curbside add-ons along with lilies from a local farmer. “Surprisingly, we moved through thousands of flowers last week,” Detwiler says. “The main thing is going after value items right now because that’s what consumers want.”
During a particularly busy period, Detwiler’s had 74 cars go through its drive-thru in one hour at one location. On its biggest day, it saw almost 700 cars. The company is now considering adding drive-thrus to more locations. “I’ve made my rounds store to store to figure out how we can do it,” he says. “It can be expensive. We’re trying to use what we have and keep our costs down, but it takes extra labor. It’s definitely been a big hit. The biggest question everyone is asking is, are we going to keep offering it? We don’t know yet.”