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Bistro to Go

High-End Drive-Thru to Debut in Newport

July 22, 1998|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Determined to elevate the experience of drive-thru dining, a Seattle-based company will open the first Autobistro in Newport Beach this month.

Shunning burgers, tacos and fries, the high-concept eatery will offer such options as apple tartlets and chicken apple sausage biscuits for breakfast, Caesar salad and panini for lunch and dinner.

The founders--including a co-founder of Starbucks--are betting that the harried, hungry masses are ready for the change.

"We're here to revolutionize the drive-thru experience," said co-founder and chief executive Jonathan Rodriguez-Atkatz, who was on hand Tuesday morning to show off the new business, located on Coast Highway next to Sterling BMW.

Newport Beach is the perfect place to launch a drive-thru restaurant where menus are printed daily and fresh fruit is a daily menu item, he said.

"Just because you don't have a lot of time, why should you have to suffer with bad food?" he asked.

Industry analysts say the brash new business has enough fresh angles to attract consumers. But it also could face hurdles as it grapples with problems that plague all fast-food eateries, which derive 40% to 60% of their sales from the drive-thru lane.

Among the obstacles: Will the food "travel well"? How fast can motorists get back on the road? Would some customers prefer to sit inside? And how much will people pay for a meal in a sack?

"Being first is not always easy sledding," said Hal Sieling, a Carlsbad restaurant consultant. "I would say initially people are going to respond pretty well to it. But, when the newness wears off, I think it would be pretty difficult to maintain business."

Even this highly competitive industry has room for newcomers that offer the right mix of convenience, quality and value, said Allan F. Hickok, a Minneapolis-based analyst.

"There is opportunity," Hickok said, "if they crack the code."

Autobistro wants not only to crack the code, but to smash it to smithereens.

"We're swinging for the fences in terms of the innovation factor," said Rodriguez-Atkatz.

For starters, customers will place their orders with a crisply clad "no-waitperson" instead of a speaker box. Cashiers will then direct them to one of three pick-up lanes.

Patrons then will drive underneath an elevated kitchen to retrieve their food from a dumbwaiter-type mechanism.

Car-less customers can forget about ordering; Autobistro has no walk-up window.

"I've had a lot of people say I've lost my mind," Rodriguez-Atkatz said. But "the real opportunity always lies in the things other people aren't seeing."

The seeds for the business were sewn in 1995 by Mark McNeely, an advertising executive who initially wanted to start a drive-up beverage business. The Mercer Island, Wash., resident ran the idea past pal Gordon Bowker, a Seattle entrepreneur who co-founded Starbucks in 1971.

The two men then approached Rodriguez-Atkatz, a lawyer who thought the concept should be broadened to include a full-service menu with jazzy architectural elements.

The original investors of Autobistro Inc.--which incorporated in 1995--were Rodriguez-Atkatz, Bowker and McNeely's mother, Alice, who lives in the San Diego area, Rodriguez-Atkatz said.

In November 1996, the men began to raise money from venture capital firms. Pacific Northwest Partners in Bellevue, Wash., was one of several major investors, said Rodriguez-Atkatz, who declined to say how much the privately-held company raised.

They began looking for sites in the fall of 1996, and approached the city of Newport Beach the following summer, he said.

The unusual project hit a snag at the city's Planning Commission as officials had trouble visualizing it, said planner Patricia Temple.

"It was kind of a challenging project for the city to approve," she said. "Not only is it a new concept business-wise, but the building itself is an unusual design."

Eventually, the City Council approved the project on a split vote.

Now, Autobistro is ready to roll. It will open July 31 and the company plans to open four more sites in Orange County by the end of 1999. It will then expand along the West Coast.

"We think we're in a very good position, if anybody is, to take advantage of the opportunity here," Rodriguez-Atkatz said.

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