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Calgary's YYCFoodTrucks co-owner Jennifer Andrews says drive-throughs have been a lifeline for 'people who want to get out and do something with their family in a safe way.'

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The idea to turn one of Ottawa’s top dining rooms into a drive-through started out as a joke.

After chef Marc Lepine was forced to temporarily close his restaurant Atelier because of COVID-19, an acquaintance made the quirky suggestion. It wasn’t meant to be serious – but Lepine loved the concept, and is now serving five-course tasting menus to diners through their car windows.

“Without knowing if anyone would actually want to do that, we decided just to put it out there,” he says, “and got a pretty overwhelming response.”

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Drive-through dining is a bright spot in what has been a challenging few months for the food service industry. According to research from Ipsos Foodservice Monitor, Canadian restaurant sales dropped by almost 60 per cent in April compared with the previous year, but drive-through dining is up by 17 per cent. The minimal human interaction required for speedy transactions primed them to provide physically distanced service during the pandemic.

Now, the drive-through – and its retro counterpart, the drive-in restaurant – are getting an elevated look as owners of food trucks, five-star hot spots and everything in between try to attract customers by turning in-car dining into an experience that goes beyond morning coffee runs and hurried weekday dinners.

For Atelier’s multicourse tasting menu, diners drive up to a booth set outside the restaurant, pick up a course, park nearby to eat in their cars, and repeat for each subsequent dish. The trial run was so successful that Lepine now operates the drive-through every Saturday and Sunday, with prix fixe meals priced at $100 a person.

Diners pull up to tables and dine in neighbouring parking spots.

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Diners are finding creative ways to enhance the experience further, Lepine says. “Last night, we had a couple in a pick-up truck on a date. … They had set up a little table in the back with chairs and cushions and a tablecloth and flowers and a candle.”

Transforming eating in your car into an experience is key to the success of YYCFoodTrucks’ drive-throughs in Calgary, according to co-owner Jennifer Andrews. She says they’ve been a lifeline for “people who want to get out and do something with their family in a safe way.”

The events allow diners to order food from about a half dozen food trucks without leaving their cars. Diners pull up to tables set outside their truck of choice to place their orders and dine in neighbouring parking spots. “We’re finding that people are looping around one, two, three, four or five times and just trying it all,” Andrews says.

In Yellowknife, Jen Vornbrock and her husband are putting their spin on the trend by opening a retro drive-in concept. She says the idea was sparked after a friend posted a photo on social media of an old-school A&W.

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Vornbrock realized the large parking lot outside their restaurant, the Monkey Tree, could accommodate a similar set-up. “I was like: ‘Wait … could we really do this?’” she says. After finding a seller on Etsy who makes car hop trays – special serving trays designed to be hooked over car windows – it started coming together.

“We already have the capability to have music outside, so we’re going to go back to fifties and sixties music,” Vornbrock says. They plan to serve a classic drive-in menu, including milkshakes and burgers. “I think it will at least be something interesting for people to do.”

Vornbrock has added one modern element to allow for effective physical distancing: Diners will place and pay for their orders using an app.

“Now all I have to do is teach the staff how to roller skate,” she says.

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