Have you noticed that Swensons Drive-In restaurants seem to be popping up all across central Ohio?
It's by design.
After more than 80 years of having but seven locations near Akron, Swensons has doubled its number of locations in the past two years while also entering two new markets, according to company officials.
The throwback restaurants do not have indoor or outdoor seating; instead, servers take orders from customers in their vehicles and the food -- hamburgers, onion rings, milkshakes and similar types of menu items -- is consumed in vehicles or taken to go.
The decision to open drive-in restaurants in the Cleveland then Columbus markets was based on the success of Swensons' two food trucks and identifying customer demand via social media and word of mouth, said Kevin Howley, senior director of marketing for Swensons.
The food trucks brought "an overwhelming response" when they began operating in the Cleveland market in 2013, Howley said.
Based on that success, Howley said, Swensons began to consider expanding its brand outside Akron, where the first Swensons opened in 1934.
"We felt the demand was strong enough that we could begin to offer the same level of excellent service we provide to our customers in Akron," he said.
In December 2017, Swensons Drive-In opened its first stand outside the Akron market, its eighth overall, in University Heights, Howley said.
Swensons opened a second Cleveland location in August 2018 in North Olmsted, and another opened in October 2018 in Avon.
In November 2018, Swensons opened its first central Ohio stand on Sawmill Road, just east of Dublin's city limits.
A location near Polaris Fashion Place in north Columbus opened in February 2019, and it was followed by a restaurant on Cemetery Road in Hilliard in September. A fourth central Ohio stand on North Hamilton Road in Columbus, west of New Albany and north of Gahanna, opened in November.
In all, those seven new Swensons stands opened from December 2017 to November 2019, increasing the number of sites from seven to 14 in the three markets, Howley said.
Social-media platforms also have played a role, particularly in the central Ohio market, he said.
"We knew we had 'Swenatics' in central Ohio," said Howley, using the company's name for fans of Swensons' seasonal milkshakes and its signature Galley Boy double cheeseburger.
Howley described the origin of the Swenatics fan club as "something organic that just naturally happened," and he was not surprised to discover that many Akron natives living in Columbus were thrilled to have the opportunity to order a Galley Boy locally.
"(But) our story is always about our people and our food, (not our) growth," he said. "What make us special are our people and the food we make."
Swensons' "curb servers" -- the drive-in restaurant's mostly college-age employees who take and deliver orders to vehicles -- had been required to be enrolled in college, but some stands in central Ohio now employ high school students who must maintain certain curriculum requirements and grade-point averages, Howley said.
"As part of our commitment to innovation, we pilot programs at select stands or in specific markets to test their effectiveness," he said. "The expansion to hire high school students is a pilot program specific to Columbus, although it's not the first time we've allowed qualified high school students to run curb."
Libby Gierach, president and CEO of the Hilliard Area Chamber of Commerce, said she is pleased Swensons chose Hilliard for one of its locations.
"This iconic Ohio restaurant brings a unique service component, as it is a drive-up, something new for us," Gierach said.
And Swensons isn't done in central Ohio.
In Reynoldsburg, the city's planning and zoning commission in October approved a 1,711-square-foot stand on 1.3 acres at 6710 E. Main St., near Rosehill Road.
Swensons also reportedly was considering a restaurant on the vacant lot at 5304 N. High St. in Columbus' Clintonville neighborhood, just north of Sunnyside Lane across from the COTA bus turnaround, according to the Clintonville Area Commission's Nov. 7 meeting agenda. But the scheduled presentation was canceled.
Howley said he would not comment on the Reynoldsburg stand, how many other stands might be in the works in central Ohio or whether Swensons plans to enter any new markets in Ohio or elsewhere.
"We only comment on (stands) that are existing or under construction," Howley said.
As of mid-December, no Swensons sites were under construction, he said.