Scooter’s Coffee is one of the largest drive-thru coffee chains in the US. Launched in Nebraska in 1998, the company now operates over 500 stores and is targeting 1,000 by the end of 2024. Missy McKinley, Senior Vice President, Operations, speaks to World Coffee Portal about a shift towards convenience in the US and the road ahead for growth
Missy McKinley, Senior Vice President, Operations, Scooter's Coffee
Scooter’s Coffee was founded in Bellevue, Nebraska, in 1998. The drive-thru coffee chain recently reached its 500-store landmark in the US and is targeting 1,000 outlets across the country by the end of 2024.
The coffee chain’s success emphasises the increasing demand for drive-thru stores in the US as customer preference for convenient, on-the-go coffee shop formats continues to gain traction. Drive-thru operators, such as Oregon-based Dutch Bros, and international chains, including Starbucks and Tim Hortons, have seen revenues from the format increase in recent years.
However, the popularity of drive-thru coffee is fairly recent. Missouri-based Red’s Giant Hamburg created the first drive-thru restaurant in the US in 1947, but it wasn’t for another four decades that the format merged with coffee. Oregon’s Coffee People is widely credited with the first drive-thru coffee shop, launching Motor Moka in Portland in 1990.
National expansion proved a bridge too far for the ‘motorist’s espresso bar’ concept and Motor Moka was sold, first to Canadian firm Second Cup in 1998 and then to Diedrich Coffee the following year.
However, the popularity of the format prompted other operators, such as Starbucks, to trial drive-thru stores. The Seattle-based coffee chain piloted its own drive-the model in 1994 and eventually acquired Diedrich in 2003, taking ownership of Motor Moka’s Oregon locations.
The departure of Coffee People and the Motor Moka concept also coincided with the launch of Scooter’s Coffee in 1998. Established by Don and Linda Eckles, who saw a gap in the local market for drive-thru outlets, the first Scooter’s Java Express opened in Bellevue, Nebraska, with the aim of serving high-quality coffee with a speed of service unbeknown to US consumers.
There is a huge demand for specialty coffee in the US, where it is no longer regarded as a treat or a luxury, but a daily habit for an increasing number of Americans
With five stores operational within the first three years, the company began franchising in 2001 and changed its name, first to Scooter’s Coffeehouse in 2005 and then to Scooter’s Coffee in 2011, which was deemed more inclusive of the drive-thru experience.
Scooter’s Coffee is now the fifth largest coffee-focused branded coffee chain in the US and increased its store count by 25% in the 12 months to August 2022 to reach 490 outlets.
Missy McKinley, Senior Vice President, Operations, Scooter’s Coffee since December 2019, said the company has experienced tremendous growth in the last two years.
Having opened 200 outlets in its first 22 years of operations, the company has launched 200 new locations in the last 22 months.
McKinley says there is a huge demand for specialty coffee in the US, where it is no longer regarded as a treat or a luxury, but a daily habit for an increasing number of Americans.
“I think specialty drink coffee is part of the United States DNA today. Ultimately, the evolving drive-thru model, the convenience we offer, and speed of service will continue to drive repeat customers to Scooter’s Coffee,” she says.
Having opened 200 outlets in its first 22 years of operations, the company has launched 200 new locations in the last 22 months
Speed of service
When Linda Eckles operated the drive-thru window at the first Scooter’s Java Express site in Bellevue she conceived the idea of putting smiley face stickers on each cup of coffee sold to symbolise the fast service the company was becoming known for.
The same principle underscores Scooter’s Coffee more than 500 locations across the US today.
“Consumers who are in a hurry can rely on Scooter’s Coffee to give them quick services regardless of a long drive-thru line. The speed of service is truly a game-changer in terms of driving our growth,” says McKinley.
She notes that Scooter’s Coffee prides itself on hiring friendly staff members who can make beverages quickly.
“We call it the window of opportunity at Scooter’s Coffee. It’s amazing to have the opportunity to make a customer’s day in a matter of seconds,” she adds.
Speed of service is enhanced with the Mobile Order Ahead function in the Scooter’s Coffee app. The company’s point-based loyalty programme enables customers to accumulate points to redeem a free beverage. Ordering ahead also enables consumers to customise their beverages, pay ahead, and pick up quickly at the drive-thru window.
“The leadership team believes the drive-thru kiosk model, which focuses on the speed of service, is a catalyst for the brand’s rapid expansion”
The pursuit of quicker service is also reflected in Scooter’s Coffee’s recent executive appointments. The company hired Patrick Coelho to enhance to kiosk concept in May before tapping former Starbucks Vice President Joe Thornton as company President in June.
Scooter’s Coffee has since added Luc Langevin, who previously managed the Circle K network of stores in North America, as Vice President of Development and Jaime Denney as Vice President of Franchise Operations to boost the speed and effectiveness of its drive-thru model.
On the road to future growth
McKinley says consumer habits changed when businesses paused in-store trade during the pandemic, attracting new customers to drive-thrus and online services. However, she also believes that demand for convenience will continue to grow in the next few years as newer generations and demographics become the proponents of US café culture.
To facilitate this, Scooter’s Coffee is focusing on scaling its kiosk model. Most Scooter’s Coffee sites also offer in-store dining but drive-thru channel sales already generate approximately 90% of company turnover.
“The leadership team believes the drive-thru kiosk model, which focuses on the speed of service, is a catalyst for the brand’s rapid expansion. The company expects future franchisees to open more kiosk models because of its low cost, attractive real estate options, and high profit margins,” McKinley comments.
Scooter’s Coffee has set a target of reaching 800 locations by the end of 2023 and operating 1,000 stores by the end of 2024.