National Post

Drive-through eating crosses another frontier

National Post
Tuesday, October 29, 2002
Page: A1 / FRONT
Section: News
Byline: Susanne Hiller
Source: National Post

NEWMARKET – Canada’s first Chinese food drive-through opened yesterday, offering up noodles, wontons, egg rolls and stir-fried vegetables in as little as 35 seconds.

Manchu Wok, a food court staple, has winnowed its menu to 32 items in order to tap into the growing popularity of drive-through restaurants.

The chain has also resurrected the old-style Chinese take-out boxes (Brian Worts, the company president, calls them “Seinfeld containers”), their metal handles removed so they can be microwaved.

With the pared-down selection, ”you don’t need 15 minutes to study the menu, so it makes it much quicker for people on the go,” said Brian Worts, Manchu Wok’s president.

“This isn’t an exotic, mysterious experience. Most people don’t even want chopsticks any more. They just want something different than a burger and chicken.”

The restaurant, in big-box mall territory at the edge of this city about 45 minutes north of Toronto, offers various combination platters (about $5.99), family meals for six and even special kiddie-sized meals that come with a toy.

Yesterday, an order of Combination 1 — orange chicken, rice, veggies and Diet Coke — and a side order of sweet and sour chicken balls arrived in one minute and eight seconds.

“I think we’ll get it down to 45 seconds, maybe even 35 seconds from order to pick up,” said Flo Jardenico, the outlet’s assistant manager.

Drive-through traffic has represented the fastest-growing area of fast food sales in the past three years, prompting Swiss Chalet and other competitors to open drive-through windows. Between 1994 and 2001, drive-through traffic in Canada went up 250%, according to market researchers NPD Group.

Doug Fisher, a food industry consultant with Toronto-based FHG International Inc., said the Manchu Wok window is not intended for families grabbing a bite on their way to the cottage.

“It’s more Dad or Mom coming home from work and picking up a convenient meal to bring back to the family — not eat in the car when you are really hungry,” he said. “They won’t be competing so much with the hamburger chains but with the Swiss Chalets and KFCs. I think it is a great opportunity for them and a good move. They have a good quality name to build on.”

The drive-through is attached to Manchu Wok’s first stand-alone restaurant, a 2,400-square-foot eatery that seats about 45.

Since its founding in 1980 in Peterborough, Manchu Wok’s outlets have popped up across the continent in small food-court locations in shopping malls and office towers and on university campuses.

With 90 locations in Canada and 150 in the United States, Manchu Wok believes it has gone as far as it can in that format and has been looking for inventive ways to expand.

Mr. Worts hopes to open 12 similar restaurants in the Toronto area over the next year. Their success will determine future expansion.

“We have to make our cuisine as convenient as other forms of fast food categories,” he explained, as zealous staffers thrust deep-fried wontons and other fare at visitors.

Mr. Worts said they are developing a line of “hand food.” Among the possibilities: a foot-long egg roll.