Drive-thru daiquiris? No problem. But coffee? Now, hold it right there.
Though it’s hardly uncommon in the suburbs, getting your java fix without leaving your car is a rare luxury within New Orleans’ city limits. That’s why local entrepreneur Anthony Marullo sees an opening.
Marullo plans to open a CC’s Coffee House franchise in the 2300 block of Canal Street, near the newly opened University Medical Center and the upcoming Veterans Affairs medical complex.
If it’s built, the shop will be one of the few of its kind in New Orleans, earning a surprising distinction in a city with no shortage of other drive-thru options — even some on busy Canal Street — including banks, pharmacies and fast-food restaurants.
But Marullo is confident that his idea will catch on. “Nationwide, there’s just a huge trend for the want, the need, the convenience of the drive-thru,” he said.
Citing a recent study commissioned by CC’s, the Baton Rouge-based coffee house chain, Marullo said that outlets with drive-thrus typically do as much as 70 percent of their business from the window. “That speaks for itself,” he said.
Why there aren’t already a number of them in New Orleans is difficult to pin down. Marullo and others cite a host of factors, including high overhead costs and a lack of obvious locations where the facilities would work.
“You’re talking about a substantial cost there,” Marullo said, “so you really have to pick the right, busy major thoroughfare to make it an economically feasible project.”
Leasing space in a shopping center for a coffee shop could run up to $250,000, he said, while building a new facility equipped a drive-thru could cost close to $600,000.
“There are limited locations in the city that have a major thoroughfare like Canal Street that can support the added cost of a stand-alone building with a drive-thru,” he said.
Marullo hopes to have his Canal Street coffee shop up and running by April, and he plans to open at least two more elsewhere in the city.
“It has to be the right spot where you can say, ‘OK, we can invest $600,000 here and get a certain return on our investment,’ ” he said. “With coffee, the price point is too low. You have to do an extreme amount of volume to support that.”
He listed a few other potential locations, such as on Claiborne and Carrollton avenues. He’s also got his eyes on Bullard Avenue in New Orleans East.
“We want to go in areas that obviously have no other existing CC’s within a certain distance,” he said. “That’s the first thing that needs to be vetted.”
But Marullo knows the drive-thru has its limits. “We would never try to drop a drive-thru on Magazine Street,” he said. “It doesn’t fit in the neighborhood.”
Because it’s not specifically addressed in the city’s master plan for long-term development, the decision on whether to grant a conditional-use permit for a drive-thru facility is made on a case-by-case basis.
In October, the City Planning Commission’s staff opposed Marullo’s request, suggesting that a Canal Street drive-thru coffee shop would run counter to the goals of the master plan, which aims to promote small neighborhood retail in that area of the city to keep it pedestrian-friendly.
When the commission discussed the project last month, it voted 4-2 to oppose it, with two members absent.
The idea fared better at the City Council’s Nov. 19 meeting, where members praised it before voting unanimously to support it.
“We’re talking about CC’s Coffee coming to Canal Street, at a spot that really has been needing to be redeveloped for a while, in my opinion,” said Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, whose district includes the site. “With all of the improvements that we’re seeing in our biomedical district area, this is truly a step in the right direction.”
Going further, Council President Jason Williams chided the Planning Commission’s stance. “I think it’s frankly absurd that this will be our first drive-thru coffee shop in the city,” he said.
Councilwoman Stacy Head said her fingers are crossed for drive-thru options closer to her home. “There are other parts of the city that could certainly use drive-thru coffee,” she said. “We’ve been trying to get one on Claiborne Avenue forever and a day.”
But not everyone shares the council’s unabashed enthusiasm for the project.
“It’s a terrible idea, actually,” said John Renne, an associate professor of planning and urban studies at the University of New Orleans and head of the Merritt C. Becker Jr. University of New Orleans Transportation Institute. “I think it goes against the overarching goals for the strategic master plan.”
If the master plan seeks to promote access for pedestrians and bicyclists, Renne said that adding a drive-thru facility in that area of Canal Street is short-sighted and ultimately turns “an urban street into a suburban corridor.”
“It’s not the most vibrant stretch right now,” he added, “but what will happen over time, as the hospitals populate, is there’s going to be a lot of demand for more retail and restaurants and shopping.”
Elsewhere in the city, the leaders of neighborhood business and residential groups in areas that include busy stretches of Carrollton and Claiborne avenues — likely targets for future drive-thru expansion — said they would be willing to listen to any proposal.
“I would have to think that most citizens are not against — blanketly, generally against — a drive-thru facility,” said Tim Levy, president of the Greater Mid-City Business Association. “I would think they would prefer to find an appropriate place where a drive-thru facility can work.”
Any proposal for adding another drive-thru facility in Mid-City, he said, would need to strike a balance to protect the neighborhood’s character. Having the proposal come from a local chain would be a plus, he said.
“We don’t want it to become a suburban paradise,” he said, “but at the same time, the citizens in Mid-City would like some conveniences just like other parts of the city.”
Emily Wolff, head of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, said she wouldn’t anticipate much resistance from neighbors to the prospect of adding a drive-thru coffee shop along South Claiborne Avenue.
“There’s already so many drive-thru establishments on that street, that stretch that hugs Broadmoor, that I don’t think it’s anything that would be out of step with what’s already in the area,” she said.
If doing so would also help clean up an underutilized section of the neighborhood, that’s a win-win.
“I think it would be really popular,” Wolff said. “If it would spur other development along there and in some of those stretches where we’re still seeing a lot of blight and disinvestment, it would be nice, and I think a lot of folks would enjoy it.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.