1-Similar approach, singular market
In the mid-80s, two very similar, although independent and distinct burger restaurant concepts emerged in the Midwestern and Southeastern parts of the United States.
Originally serving the Midwest, Rally’s Drive-In Restaurants, Inc. opened in Louisville, Kentucky in 1985 (source: Checkers.com). Founded in Mobile, Alabama in 1986, Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, Inc. began dishing out burgers with over-the-top flavors in the Southeast (source: Checkers.com).
Rally’s, Front view, 2520 12th Avenue North, Birmingham, Alabama (source: maps.google.com)
United by similar restaurant design, client approach, and menus emphasizing burgers, fries and shakes, the two chains would eventually unite in 1999 to form Checkers & Rally’s Hamburgers, Inc. (source: Checkers.com). The original menus have since expanded beyond burgers and fries to include chicken, fish, wings and more, accounting for 2011 sales of $668 million for the Florida-based (Tampa) company (source: Burgerbusiness.com).
Checkers, Front view, 1680 New York Ave, Huntington Station, New York (source: maps.google.com)
Ranked 12th largest burger operation in the U.S., the combined company operates in excess of 800 Checkers and Rally’s branded restaurants across 28 states and the District of Columbia (source: Burgerbusiness.com, Checkers.com, wikipedia.org). However, due in large part to its unique architectural and design choices, the company leads in one category, ranking as the largest double drive-thru restaurant chain in the United States (source: Checkers.com).
2-Promoting the double drive-thru
Exemplifying a drive-thru/car-centric design focus, both chains strive for efficiency and streamlined service. Although not instantly evident, the double drive-thru concept is partially derived from internal demands, such as streamlined restaurant operations through optimized kitchen layout for the food preparation and work area, and from external demands for maximum impact from a diminutive building.
Checkers, 3/4 view, 2009 Pepperell Parkway, Opelika, Alabama (source: maps.google.com)
One of the most striking characteristics is the size of the restaurants, which tend to be on smaller end of the spectrum. Many fast food and casual dining restaurants size tends to average in the 1,500 sq ft to 3,000 sq ft range. Conversely, Checkers and Rally’s traditional double drive-thru restaurants typically fare below the 1,000 sq ft threshold. Benefiting from being mainly focused on drive-thru and walk-up traffic, therefore unencumbered by dining areas, the restaurant size can be substantially decreased.
Checkers, Aerial view, 2009 Pepperell Parkway, Opelika, Alabama (source: maps.google.com)
As a trade-off, exterior seating areas are offered for those guests that would prefer to “eat-in” as opposed to taking off with their meal, bag in hand. Deftly, the on-site seating helps to expand the perceived size of the restaurant to include the outdoor space into the defined usable area, thereby stitching building and site together into a larger tapestry.
Checkers, Aerial view, 2129 North Ashley Street, Valdosta, Georgia (source: maps.google.com)
However, site planning adds a further dynamic which contributes to making an already small building look even smaller. Due to on-site parking requirements, vehicular circulation, turning radii, drive-thru line-ups and car-stacking lanes involved, as the main thrust of the business model is drive-thru traffic, the site is substantially larger than a building of such modest size might inherently warrant.
Checkers, Aerial view, 6402 Airport Blvd, Mobile, Alabama (source: maps.google.com)
Although thoughtfully and functionally laid out to adhere to North American left-hand drive (LHD) standards, the Checkers and Rally’s miniature double drive-thru restaurants seem almost an afterthought in a tableau of paving and concrete.
Rally’s, Aerial view, 412 North Main Street, Marion, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)
The geometry of the building is distinct, in that it resembles a long rectangle with a bulge at the top. Seen from overhead it is evident, the shape is unconditionally linear with overlapping rectangles forming a squat “T” shaped building. In addition, the layout replicates an assembly or production line, flowing from rear (order placing) to front (order pick-up), at a speed keeping up with vehicular flow-through traffic and turnover.
Rally’s, Aerial view, 133 North Bridge Street, Chillicothe, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)
Speed, efficiency, small size, big flavors, all these Checkers and Rally’s hallmarks can be inferred from the double drive-thru design. Additionally, for a brand that likes to stress “made to order” food, the notable oblique and subliminal self-reinforcing production line nuance between building and brand can plausibly be drawn.
From the outset, Checkers & Rally’s became flag bearers for the double drive-thru restaurant concept in their respective geographic territories and it came to identify the brand.
Pizzaiolle restaurant with classical Diner Art Deco design cues, 4801 Rue St-Denis, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
The double drive-thru, along with similar exterior aesthetics which made liberal use of checkerboard square wall patterns, chrome accents, red neon signage and dose of retro 50’s diner nostalgia, made the burger chains a natural fit to merge.
Rally’s, Front view, 133 North Bridge Street, Chillicothe, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)
Similar in concept, the execution however of both chains rendition of a simple, playful, basic, mid-century diner/ice cream shop influenced design, differed noticeably.
Rally’s, 3/4 view, 810 East Center Street, Madisonville, Kentucky (source: maps.google.com)
Rally’s retro-influenced aesthetic expression made use of a mix of red tile exterior wall cladding on the facades, stark white wall finishes on the remaining walls (sides and rear) and roof elements above the walk-up and drive-thru pick-up windows. Additionally, Rally’s design vocabulary at times included a combination of design items such as rounded corners at the façade edges, glass block corners and inserts, as well as red banding along the building sides. The roof component included various treatments such as an awning wrapping the corners covering each pick-up window, or at times segmented by signage.
Rally’s, 3/4 view, 3050 Maple Avenue, Zanesville, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)
Rally’s, Front view, 3050 Maple Avenue, Zanesville, Ohio (source: maps.google.com)
Other roof treatments included a strong horizontal banding element that would extend over the drive-thru windows coalescing into a cantilevered roof element, or extending onto columns that framed the drive-thru lanes. In the final assessment, Rally’s design approach was deemed more dated, having seemingly grown stale.
Rally’s, Front view, 1801 South Brand Blvd, Glendale, California (source: maps.google.com)
Checkers on the other hand, which utilized much of the same design palette stood apart by emphasizing a checkerboard tile pattern with black and white tiles, making liberal use of neon lighting and featuring more stainless steel banding and horizontal accents. Seamlessly melding these bands into the pick-up window roofline, stretching from side to side and resting on large round columns, the combination helped integrate the building and drive-thru lanes into a holistic design, giving the small building more presence. As such, Checkers commanded a stronger, identifiable, more relevant and modern visual presence.
Checkers, 3/4 view, 2129 North Ashley Street, Valdosta, Georgia (source: maps.google.com)
Thus, post-merger, Rally’s locations began redesigning to adopt the more timeless Checkers design aesthetic. As a result, the two chains currently look nearly identical except for the name on the sign.
Rally’s, Front view, 1307 Frederica Street, Owensboro, Kentucky (source: maps.google.com)
4-Making retro contemporary
Much like Rally’s restaurants needed a freshening up post-merger, the Checkers and Rally’s brand went through an updating in recent years to refresh the restaurants and make them more contemporary.
Rally’s before design update, Columbus, Ohio (source: Burgerbusiness.com)
Iconic elements such as the checkerboard pattern wrapping around the sides of the building from front to back, tactical use of stainless steel, red neon lighting, were accentuated in the design freshening.
Larger-scaled tile, featuring the traditional black and white checkerboard pattern updated with a copious insertion of red, resulted in a bolder presence. The larger black and white tile pattern, extending above the bisecting roofline, brings a sense of completeness and integrated design sense to the façade.
More verticality, harder edges and less pronounced rounded corners results in a façade which is more voluminous, with a more upright and forceful stance. Stainless steel banding and cap flashing accents, along with neon lighting, proposes a cleaner, brighter, bolder presence.
Rally’s after design update, Columbus, Ohio (source: Burgerbusiness.com)
Traditionally straight columns at the drive-thru roof take a more exaggerated approach, proposing fluted columns, tapered and flared at the top, resulting in an irreverent and playful interpretation of the chain’s red drinking straws.
Ingrained into the brand essence since inception and invariably associated with the double drive-thru concept, Checkers & Rally’s nevertheless cannot lay claim to double drive-thru exclusivity, as other chains have also used the model.
Tim Hortons, double drive-thru location, Pitt Street, Cornwall, Ontario, Canada
As other chains experimented with the double drive-thru, Checkers and Rally’s began to question its own long-held attachment to the double drive-thru model as the design feature that would come to define the brand.
5-Double drive-thru Doppelganger
Publicly unveiled in late 2012, Checkers and Rally’s began rolling out and promoting a new store layout and prototype store featuring a single drive-thru, stepping away from the company’s long held double-drive thru heritage. In development since 2010, first built, operated and customer process-tested in Mobile (Alabama) in 2011, it was the first “from the ground up, clean-sheet” redesign in the company’s 25-year history (source: qsrmagazine.com).
At first blush, the new single drive-thru design, which introduces a new stacked and overlapping segmented horizontal roofline with angular edges or “wings”, emulates and evokes the double drive-thru legacy. This “trompe l’oeil” is achieving by allowing the roof element to project and hover above the now expanded customary outdoor seating area, providing additional weather protection for al fresco diners.
Checkers new single drive-thru prototype restaurant, Mobile, Alabama (source: nrn.com)
Retaining much of the brand essence, the new single lane drive-thru is still very much instantly identifiable as Checkers and Rally’s.
Although best integrated into new-builds, the new single drive-thru features many of the contemporary touches that the chain will undoubtedly make available for application in the double drive-thru refresh, and all other restaurant models.
Although Checkers and Rally’s drive-thru centric business model is ideal for suburban settings, it does not integrate well into the dense urban markets of the Northeast/New England/East coast such as New York, New Jersey, Boston, Baltimore and Washington, DC. Adopting a steadfast adherence to the drive-thru model would inevitably hamper its pan-national ambitions.
Former Checkers, Front view, 200 East Linwood Blvd, Kansas City, Missouri (source: maps.google.com)
Former Rally’s, Front view, 6151 South Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando, Florida (source: maps.google.com)
Therefore, the chain known for drive-thrus also operates some less top-of-mind, yet more conventional restaurant options, such as inline, end-cap, and conversions, which may include indoor dining rooms and seating (source: Checkers.com).
Checkers and Rally’s building options (source: checkersfranchising.com)
Moving deeper into new geographic territories, brimming with a bold new presence and armed with various restaurant options, it remains nonetheless wise and practical for the Checkers and Rally’s brand to mine and exploit its long history and enduring double drive-thru architectural identity to introduce the brand to new fans.
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