Ordering | October 2012 | By Kevin Hardy

The Drive-Thru Fixer-Upper

Drive thru not working like it should? These tips should get it running smoothly in no time.

Poor drive thru performance can drag down a quick serve's business.
Poor drive thru performance can drag down a quick serve's business. flickr / Jennuine Captures
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On a recent visit to shop his competition, operator Thom Crosby saw disappointment after disappointment in the drive thru. Bad customer service while placing and paying for his order, poorly dressed employees, and backed-up cars plagued operation after operation.

But to Crosby, the experience was more than just a bad lunch. It epitomized all that can go wrong with a broken drive thru.

Crosby, CEO of Pal’s Sudden Service, a Kingsport, Tennessee–based regional burger chain, knows his drive thrus inside and out. He knows that, under full pressure, a Pal’s store moves a car from the drive-thru window every 18 seconds. And through the Pal’s Business Excellence Institute, Crosby works with all sorts of brands—restaurant and otherwise—to similarly maximize their own businesses.

While many quick serves focus on systemization and operational efficiencies to improve their drive thrus, Crosby warns that such moves can sometimes sideline hospitality and customer satisfaction.

“They’re not paying specific attention to the individual customer. A lot of drive thrus are set up to fail right to begin with,” Crosby says. “A lot of people think that efficiency is the trump card and they settle on effectiveness. That’s the wrong way. You can efficiency yourself to death.”

Crosby says speed and order accuracy are important, but that customer service is key to any drive thru’s long-term success. The only way to ensure that is to train and retrain staff, he says.

“In our world, every single day we have dozens and dozens of training opportunities going on for people who are already certified experts,” Crosby says. “We can show that that’s absolutely an investment that pays off: higher productivity, longevity, lower rates of mistake, faster service times, better hospitality.”

A high-performing drive thru must work like a fine-tuned machine. The smallest mistakes can quickly multiply and get out of hand with cars stacking up. The solutions for getting a drive thru up to speed are as varied as the problems, but industry insiders say many drive-thru fixes can be made quickly and inexpensively.

“It doesn’t have to cost money. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary. It doesn’t always have to have a lot of technology behind it,” says Juan Martinez, principal and founder of Profitality, a foodservice industrial engineering and ergonomics consultancy.

With industry-wide improvements in order accuracy rates, Martinez says, “speed is the new frontier” for drive-thru operators. But even with new technologies like order timers, employees can find ways to cheat the system, which highlights the need for continued staff training, Martinez says.

To improve speed of service, Martinez recommends a systematic labor review. Because a restaurant can only work as fast as its slowest link, it’s important to review the efficiency of every position on the line, he says.

A menu review is another quick and easy fix for failing drive thrus, Martinez says. In the rush to innovate, many operators add on newer products without considering how they’ll affect the drive-thru business. One product, like chicken tenders at a burger joint, can throw off an entire lunch rush with longer cook times. Martinez says operators need the discipline to ditch slower, unpopular items. That improves speed and ultimately customer service.

“If you don’t menu innovate, you die. If you don’t evolve the menu, you die. But if you innovate wrong, you kill yourself,” he says.

As it transitioned from carry-out and dine-in to drive-thru stores, Atlanta-based Wing Zone found it had to let go of some appetizers that had low hold times and long cook times, and it had to rethink its operating systems. The restaurants previously cooked wings made-to-order, but now they’re pre-cooked and dressed in one of 17 flavors to order at drive-thru locations.

“We’ve really had to reformulate our entire operating system,” says Matt Friedman, CEO and cofounder of the 85-unit chain.

Ticket times averaged between 12 and 14 minutes in Wing Zone’s traditional stores. But with new operating systems, that time averages between 2:45 and 3:30 in its two drive-thru units.

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