Ordering | October 2012 | By Kevin Hardy

The Drive-Thru Fixer-Upper

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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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Streamlining drive-thru service is often much more challenging for smaller regional chains and independents. Investments in systemization and new technology like headsets, menuboards, and order-confirmation screens are sometimes out of reach for the smaller quick serves. But restaurant consultant Aaron Allen says even the smallest operators can make meaningful changes. He recommends making sure there’s a checklist in place for every system. It’s an admittedly simple idea, but Allen points out that checklists are used by even the most seasoned pilots, health-care providers, and law-enforcement officers.

“Even though they’ve done their jobs for years and years, they found the errors were greatly reduced when they created checklists,” he says. “That’s one thing every [quick serve] should have: checklists in place for every process. Not just in some three-ring binder, but where the employees can see it.”

Even with the best systems and protocols, the delivery always comes down to the employees, meaning the work culture and environment are key. Allen says to consider the different senses of urgency between a customer in a hurry and an hourly employee working an eight-hour shift.

“If you get paid by the hour, what’s the difference to you if it’s moving really fast or it’s not? You’re not getting tips at the drive thru,” he says of apathetic employees.

Allen says a fun and goal-focused work culture can make shifts more enjoyable for line workers and help improve drive-thru performance. “It’s always going to come down to the people,” Allen says.

The people are exactly what Checkers/Rally’s, the nation’s largest double drive-thru chain, sees as being key to improving drive-thru effectiveness. Corporate employees and managers tirelessly measure guest satisfaction and order speed throughout the 800-unit chain.

But Adam Noyes, chief restaurant operations and supply chain officer, says getting buy-in from shift leaders and employees makes a huge difference in delivery. Noyes says the best managers create a fun work environment and reward employees. With their double drive-thru model, some Checkers stores have employees on each side compete against each other.

In the last few years, Noyes says, stores have grown more focused on speed of service since fully integrating the brand’s timer systems with back-office software. Now all levels of management can easily view data on a store’s sales, labor, and speed. That has put more emphasis on timing at the restaurant level, where staffers are constantly aware of order times.

Since 2009, average order times at Checkers/Rally’s have dropped by more than a minute per guest, while transactions grew by about 10 percent in stores, Noyes says. But that metric also means customers are probably leaving happier. In their customer feedback system, Noyes says, customers often report speed of service as the key indicator of satisfaction.

This year, the burger chain expanded its manager bonus program to include all employees with 60 or more days of service. If benchmarks are met, employees are eligible for the monthly bonus.

“That helps,” Noyes says. “But the biggest thing we see is that team members really look for leadership. When a manager sets the tone and expectation and has the team focused on it and they have fun with it, that’s what gets the team energized.”

While drive thrus continue to explore and experiment with new technology, experts warn that any operator looking to fix up his drive thru should not rely too much on these new tools.

Take order-confirmation screens and pre-recorded greetings, both growing in popularity at the drive thru. These tools can help streamline service, but one expert says they shouldn’t be substituted for treating customers right for the few minutes they’re on the lot.

“We don’t see that as a negative, as long as you’re adding to it the personal follow up. Just because we put all that in there, we can’t look at it as a substitute for the personal touch,” says Chris Tripoli, president of A’La Carte Foodservice Consulting Group.

With the mechanization of other industries, like banking and grocery-store checkouts, Tripoli says giving the customer a few seconds of individualized attention is key, whether it’s suggesting an item or simply making them feel appreciated. “Those little personal touches are more important now than they’ve ever been,” he says. “We’re not getting very much service in other parts of our day. So I would stress customer service.”

Tripoli says many drive-thru wrongs can be righted with changes in the menu, systems, or labor management. But sometimes a broken drive-thru calls for even more drastic adjustments.

John Miologos, executive vice president of architecture, engineering, and construction management for global retail and food design firm WD Partners, says operators should pay particular attention to layout, communication, and product delivery when surveying their physical spaces. He says the most common drive-thru design flaw is not segregating the drive thru from walk-in functions in a quick serve. Many quick serves were originally created when walk-in service was the majority of the business. Now that drive-thru business continues to dominate quick serves, he says, some operators may need to rethink their entire setup.

“The ones that work the best are the ones that understand those are two very different operational systems that have to be housed in that area, one serving the drive thru and one serving the in-store customers,” Miologos says.

Drive thru dos and don’ts

Do:

  • Create checklists for systems and procedures
  • Constantly train and retrain staff and managers
  • Offer rewards for staff and manager performance
  • Ensure that drive-thru staff know the menu
  • Create a fun and competitive work environment
  • Make sure each job function isn’t overworked or underworked
  • Make menuboards and other signage simple and easy to read
  • Think of your drive thru as a different segment than walk-up business
  • Stick with the core menu offerings

Don’t:

  • Let technology trump the personal touch
  • Try to sell everything at the drive thru
  • Keep unpopular or slow-to-cook menu items
  • Let customers sit unattended at the speaker or the window
  • Sacrifice customer service for speed
  • Make customers spend a second longer than is necessary on the lot
  • Lose sight of what the competition is doing
  • Put inexperienced or untrained workers at the window
  • Jump to invest in new equipment or technology before you look at internal systems