For years, Dunkin’ wanted a drive-thru in this NC town. Permit OK’d to make it happen

Patrons of Dunkin’ on East Franklin Street will soon be able to get their coffee and doughnuts from a drive-thru window, instead of parking and walking inside.

“Go forth, and drive through,” Mayor Pam Hemminger quipped Wednesday night after the Town Council’s unanimous 9-0 vote.

The permit was approved with no discussion. The vote came after a February public hearing when the council had several questions for the owner-developer about the potential for traffic to back up into Franklin Street.

The drive-thru permit was eight years in the making. The store owner first applied for a permit to build the Dunkin’ restaurant at 1509 E. Franklin St. in 2015.

While a drive-thru window was always the plan — and allowed with a special-use permit under the current zoning — the restaurant would have faced a more complex approval process, including multiple advisory board and Town Council reviews, if it had included that amenity from the start.

Instead, the owner got town staff approval for the building and opened in 2017, replacing a former gas station beside the Sherwin Williams paint store.

The Dunkin’ restaurant was built to accommodate a pickup window in the future, and in October 2017, a separate application was filed for the drive-thru lane. The application noted that to-go orders already “constitute more than half its customer traffic with many of those customers expressing surprise that there is not a drive-thru window service option provided for better customer service.”

Drive-thru traffic, climate concerns

Drive-thru lanes are a rare business amenity in Chapel Hill and have been largely opposed over the last 30 years because of concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion.

The drive-thru window at Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen, about a quarter-mile west of Dunkin’, is known for having a line of cars that spill out of its parking lot on busy mornings, closing down one westbound lane of East Franklin Street. Sunrise was built in the 1960s.

With the exception of banks and pharmacies, other businesses located on the town’s main streets don’t offer drive-thru service. A few that have been added in recent years were part of larger, mixed-use projects, including at the University Place redevelopment on Estes Drive and at the Chick-fil-a and Starbucks stores in Carraway Village on Eubanks Road.

Last year, Cook Out opened its first Chapel Hill store with a drive-thru lane — a leftover amenity from the Burger King restaurant that long occupied the site. That agreement left Cook Out with few options for routing its drive-thru traffic, which now blocks South Elliott Road at certain times of the day. The restaurant also has a rare dining room for patrons who don’t want their order to-go.

Peter Turner, who owns and has developed multiple Dunkin’ stores in North Carolina, said in February that Chapel Hill has “valid concerns” about creating a situation like the traffic backups at Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen.

“We are not Sunrise Biscuits,” he said at the council hearing, noting that the Dunkin’ drive-thru would hold 10 cars, compared with five at Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen. Sunrise also does not have a dining room or a mobile app to speed up the ordering and pickup process, he said.

Dunkin’ stores surveyed in the Triangle reported their drive-thru lanes held enough cars to avoid blocking the street 99% of the time, Turner told the council. Those who do can be ticketed, he said.

The other concern, about greenhouse gas emissions, will require customers to exercise some responsibility, Turner said.

“It is our hope that our customers will continue the trend of shifting to electric and hybrid vehicles,” he said, as well as adhere to signs posted asking them not to leave their engines idling if they have to wait.

Other changes include:

Parking: The town’s rules require the 10,828-square-foot restaurant to have 50 parking spaces. It was approved for slightly less, at 43 spaces. The new permit will reduce that number to 37 so that the drive-thru can be built. The current horizontal parking spaces will be angled to accommodate one-way traffic.

Traffic: Two lanes of traffic will enter on the eastern side of the property. The lane next to the building will serve drive-thru traffic; the other will serve customers who park and go inside. All traffic will exit around the back side of the building and out through a second driveway in front of the Sherwin Williams paint store.