By Dahlia Ghabour - Reporter, Jacksonville Business Journal

As restaurants trend more and more towards take-out and delivery models, fast-casual chains around the country are quickly adapting their business models to keep up. Firehouse Subs is no different, having launched a new packaging design and designated pick-up counter for takeout orders in recent months.

Now, more and more drive-thru Firehouse Subs locations are springing up, with the first one in Jacksonville opening last week.

Firehouse Vice President of Operations Services Rich Goodman said that the drive-thru program launched in 2012 with three locations. Now, 48 Firehouse Subs have drive-thru windows, with the number expected to rise to 60 by the end of 2018.

"It's kind of exciting to see it grow," he said. "All the other drive-thru locations have been on the franchise side, and we very much wanted a company-owned drive-thru. So the Baymeadows store is our playground training, testing type lab now that we have it in our backyard."

So far, implementing drive-thru locations has been on a situational basis, because most Firehouse restaurants are in strips and don't have the ability to adapt to drive-thru. And while Goodman said the company still isn't pushing drive-thru implementation from headquarters, the franchisees' "pull from the field is enormous."

"The performance of the drive-thru restaurants run about 22 percent higher sales than the system, so it's a big jump," Goodman said. "The return on investment is there, operators see it. They see the opportunity for convenience with the shift in consumers eating more food off-premise."

Firehouse Subs is also testing a new steamer, able to heat foods much faster in a smaller space. Senior Director of Company Operations Mike Branson said that the steamers' speed helps assist drive-thru production.

"While the new steamers are definitely an advantage for drive-thru, the initial genesis was not about drive-thru, it was about making the kitchen more efficient," Branson said. "Every brand wants to be a little faster and not sacrifice quality."

Firehouse Sub's takeout program, titled "Rapid Rescue To-Go," implements a specific station with the food ready to be picked up. After a late 2017 promotion, the program has yielded a 23 percent improvement in online orders during its test. The program will be implemented in the more-than 1,135 restaurants by mid-July 2018.

Goodman said that Firehouse leaders, fresh from their national conference, are doubling down on engagement with off-premise diners in the future. Firehouse is looking to build more restaurants that are adaptable for carry-out; they're even implementing kitchen flow redesign for the first time in nearly 25 years.

They call it the "restaurant of the future."

"Knowing that's the trend of not just Firehouse, but of the restaurant industry in general, we need to stay current with it," Goodman said.

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