Special Report | October 2012 | By Sam Oches

2012 QSR Drive-Thru Study

How the best drive-thru operations in the industry make the wheels go ’round.

Taco Bell has the second fastest drive thru in quick service.
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The drive-thru operation of a quick-service restaurant may seem relatively cut and dried, but operators aren’t resting on their laurels when it comes to their outdoor business. For many brands in the industry, the drive thru can account for anywhere between 50 and 70 percent of sales—no small number in a $200 billion industry.

For the last 14 years, QSR has challenged operators to improve their drive-thru business through the Drive-Thru Performance Study, a proprietary report co-owned by QSR and Columbus, Ohio–based Insula Research. And in the report’s first decade, operators rose to the challenge; over that time, brands fine-tuned their operations and improved on elements such as speed and accuracy.

However, it became clear that a number of brands stood above the rest in the drive-thru business. So in 2011, QSR and Insula Research debuted the benchmark group of the best brands in drive thru, including six permanent brands—McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, Burger King, Krystal, and Taco Bell—along with one rotating regional chain, which was Del Taco in the benchmark group’s inaugural year.

This year, we take a look at how the six mainstays—along with 2012’s regional chain, Bojangles’—have fared since we launched the benchmark group. Have speed and accuracy really hit a wall? Did crewmembers get a refresher course on “please” and “thank you”? And can cleanliness really affect the overall drive-thru experience? Read on to find out.

The reverse tales of speed and accuracy

The two easiest gauges of a drive thru’s health, speed and accuracy remain the two strategies at the top of every operator’s drive-thru manual. And according to this year’s data, the benchmark group continues to post stellar numbers in accuracy. Burger King has the lowest rate with 83 percent accuracy (6.7 percentage points lower than its performance last year), while Chick-fil-A is tops with 92.4 percent. McDonald’s (90.9 percent), Taco Bell (91.2), and Wendy’s (89.9) all improved over 2011.

However, since the high-water mark for speed in a drive thru came courtesy of Wendy’s in 2003 (at an eye-popping 116.2 seconds), speed has tapered off for nearly every brand in the study.

That trend continued this year. Wendy’s is the only brand to improve on its average service time over last year, which it did with gusto by clocking in at an average 129.75 seconds, nearly 16 seconds better than last year. Denny Lynch, senior vice president of communications at Wendy’s, thinks there is always room for operators to improve upon their drive-thru speed. Menu proliferation, he says, is one thing that has possibly driven average service times up over the last several years.

“You want a chicken sandwich, and you want mustard, pickle, onion on it? OK, I get the chicken fillet, the mustard, pickle, and onion, put it on a bun, wrap it up, and you’ve got it,” Lynch says. “You want a smoothie? OK, I’ve got to get the ingredients, I’ve got to portion out the ingredients, I’ve got to put it into a blender and smooth it.

“Because of that, you put the stress on the speed of service at the pick-up window. … I think that has influenced the total speed of service.”

Brian Baker, president of Insula Research, confirms that complex menus are likely to blame for the fact that drive-thru speed has plateaued the last seven or eight years. While he suggests it’s not necessarily a bad thing that speed hasn’t continued to improve—“If you get any faster ... your consumer is going to start to feel rushed”—he says pre-sell menuboards sometimes help speed up drive-thru service time.

“The benchmark group is primarily national chains, but I would expect to see more of a dramatic impact [from pre-sell boards] if you were a regional player and you’re looking to expand the geography where you operate,” Baker says. “When you’re going into new markets, I think they would be even more important, that you give people the opportunity to familiarize themselves with your menu before they get to the order point.”

The Performance Study shows that Baker is right; Bojangles’, the lone regional chain in this year’s study, sees average service times increase nearly 30 seconds in units with pre-sell boards compared with units without the boards.

Pre-sell boards don’t improve service times everywhere, however. Two of the benchmark chains, McDonald’s and Burger King, have better average service times at units without pre-sell boards than those with the boards.

Lynch says Wendy’s pays attention to small details in its kitchen and assembly areas to help push service times down. For example, something seemingly negligible like the position of the fridge door handle can affect the speed with which a crewmember can get food out of the window.

“One of the things that we’re constantly looking at is, How do we prepare for our rush periods and a pre-rush period?” he says. “How can we get our condiments, utensils, napkins, and all of that prepared, so that when a lunch rush comes, you’re highly efficient? You’re not having to run to the back room to get supplies; they’re all appropriated by the pick-up window right in your space. So those are things that you’ve really got to be ready for.”

Similarly, executives at Bojangles’ believe they can shave seconds off their service time by paying attention to the little details. And for a chain that offers more complex menu items like mac ‘n cheese, green beans, rice, and pinto beans, Bojangles’ needs all the efficiencies it can get.

Kenneth Avery, vice president of operations at Bojangles’, says these efficiencies include limiting the number of suggestive sells and teaming the same drive-thru crewmembers regularly so they learn to work well together.

“One of the things we did in our [operators instructional] DVD is we told people that, ‘Hey, every time out the window is a second,’” Avery says. “So we started setting things like, two or more drinks automatically go in a carrier; now you’re out the window one time instead of passing the drinks out individually. So we’ve looked at some of those things as a way to speed up the line.”

At Krystal, average service time climbed from 155.9 seconds in 2011 to 175.94 in 2012. CEO Doug Pendergast, who joined the brand in April, says the company is actively retooling its strategies to improve its average service time. One of the ways it’s doing that, he says, is by re-examining the menu options offered on the drive-thru menuboard and focusing solely on the brand’s core items. Krystal is also reconfiguring the ways in which it analyzes drive-thru speed.

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