Based on where Noodles & Company was headed in early 2020, COVID-19 trends didn’t feel all that foreign. Sure, there were some unusual shifts, like the fact more people picnic in their cars than public places these days. But the majority simply represented an acceleration of initiatives Noodles & Company invested in before the curtain fell on dining rooms. And as many quick-serve restaurants can attest, the pandemic compressed the innovation cycle; it didn’t exactly reinvent it.
Before the onset of coronavirus, off-premises grew to 60 percent of Noodles & Company’s sales mix. Its food traveled well relative to competitors. Menu variety resonated with younger demographics and families who gravitated toward the occasion.
Yet there remained opportunity held back by friction. Of that 60 percent figure, 10 percent represented delivery. So half of Noodles & Company’s transactions were guests coming into the restaurant, waiting in line, and then waiting again for food. Even if they ordered digitally, they’d need to park and hop out.
“From an optimal guest experience, there was 50 percent of our sales we felt could be significantly improved from a guest experience perspective,” CEO Dave Boennighausen says in an interview with QSR.
There was a lot of digital whitespace to gain well before a global crisis arrived. And a few initiatives have started to churn for the 1995-founded fast casual.
One is something Noodles & Company actually started to implement in new restaurant designs a couple of years ago. But it didn’t gain prominence or coverage for the straightforward reason the company wasn’t growing all that much.
Noodles & Company had 532 restaurants on January 3, 2017. By October 2019, there were 458. Retraction kicked in in April 2017 and slowly slid that direction leading up to this year. In Q3 2019, however, Noodles & Company opened four company restaurants that performed better than any class in 15-plus years. The ensuing quarter, it debuted a unit that produced one of the chain’s highest opening sales days in history. It led Noodles & Company to guide 5 percent unit growth systemwide starting in 2021, with potential acceleration to at least 7 percent in the years beyond.