Special Report | October 2012 | By Sam Oches

2012 QSR Drive-Thru Study

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Taco Bell has the second fastest drive thru in quick service.
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“With speed, we’ve actually shifted our focus away from total transaction time and are focusing just on the window time, and within window time, we’re focusing less on the average and more on the distribution,” Pendergast says. “I don’t know that another 10 seconds makes a huge difference to a guest, but if we can eliminate the five-minute, seven-minute, [and] 10-minute transaction entirely, that, I think, will drive a more meaningful customer satisfaction.”

Speed is also relative among the benchmark chains. While Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Bojangles’, Krystal, and Burger King all had fewer than two vehicles on average in the drive thru, McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A—Nos. 5 and 6, respectively, in drive-thru service time—each had more than double that (Chick-fil-A had a whopping 5.37 vehicles on average).

“We always look for opportunities to increase capacity and improve accuracy,” writes McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud in an e-mail to QSR. “Finding ways to make the drive-thru easier for our employees to operate and having greater capability to meet the needs of our customer is always a top priority.”

How to manage capacity

In the last several years, McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A have each attempted to ease the strains of busy drive thrus by employing a two-lane system in many units. These operations split cars into two ordering stations, after which the lanes flow back into one line for payment and pick-up.

“Growing the drive-thru business requires matching the capacity of a drive-thru layout with the customer demand,” Proud writes in her e-mail. “Multiple lanes provide the ability to have multiple order points, which is an effective way to increase the number of guests a restaurant can serve.”

Though such a system has worked effectively for McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A, other brands interviewed for this story admit that, while it’s something they’ve explored, customers pulling through their drive thrus shouldn’t expect to see multiple lanes any time soon.

“Multiple lanes and windows are helpful to alleviate bottlenecks,” writes Rob Savage, chief operating officer of Taco Bell, in an e-mail to QSR. “However, our experience has shown that these solutions can be expensive to implement and are only used situationally.”

Rather than invest the capital in multiple drive-thru lanes, many brands are exploring the idea of the line buster. Representatives of McDonald’s, Bojangles’, Krystal, and Wendy’s all confirmed that line-busting technologies are either used or in development throughout their systems. While Lynch says Wendy’s employed line busters as many as 30 years ago to keep the drive-thru line moving, innovations in tablet and POS technology have given operators new opportunities to streamline through an outside order-taker.

“When you’re in a situation where you’ve got great volume, great velocity, and you need to get more cars in and off your lot, an outside order-taker can be one of those things that can help you do that,” Bojangles’ Avery says. “That outside order-taker [also] allows us to be more accurate, because we’re having that person interact directly with the customer and then relaying that inside in our language, so we know exactly what our customers want to get it right.”

Meanwhile, executives at Krystal have their eye on other futuristic ideas to help improve efficiencies in drive-thru capacity. Pendergast says he could see mobile ordering finding its way to the Krystal drive thru soon.

“[I see] the ability of a customer to either call ahead or interface with us on an iPhone application, say, ‘I’m going to be by between 2 o’clock and 2:15, I’d like 48 Krystals to go,’ and to have those items prepared and in place, perhaps using their iPhones to make that payment already,” he says. “All they have to do is swing around, pick it up, and they’re off and running.”

The most crucial element in drive thru?

Pendergast says that at Krystal, cleanliness is one of the most critical elements to the drive thru—even as he admits the company could be doing a better job with it.

The good news for Pendergast and other operators is they seem to be doing a fine job at cleanliness. Data shows that at least 98.3 percent of the exteriors of each surveyed chain’s units were “favorable.” Similarly, no brand did worse than 98.7 percent on menuboard cleanliness, while 99.4 percent or more of units at each surveyed brand had clean temporary signage.

But that doesn’t mean companies can rest easy on the cleanliness front. Pendergast says Krystal has a system-wide cleanliness program that involves training, measurement, and preventative maintenance, and that the company is tripling the frequency with which in-house maintenance teams visit restaurants.

Bojangles’ has a similar commitment, as its managers do a walk-through of their units every hour to make sure everything is spic-and-span. “Customers that are visiting your drive thru are not coming inside, so they make impressions of your business and how you execute based on how you keep the outside, the landscaping, the drive-thru lanes, the windows at the pick-up window, Dumpster gates, all of that stuff,” Avery says.

Dumpster gates seem to be the one cleanliness component currently lacking in the drive-thru industry. According to the Performance Study, the vast majority of units’ Dumpsters are visible from the menuboard. A full 94.2 percent of Bojangles’ units have a visible Dumpster, while Burger King has the lowest amount, at 66.4 percent.

Shaping the customer’s purchasing decision

Drive-thru menuboards and temporary signage may be clean across the quick-service industry, but benchmark brands are working diligently to strategically use signage to maximize the drive thru.

“We’ve decluttered a lot of our menuboards, making them easy to read for customers,” Avery says. “We think if they’re easy to read, from font size and pictures and whatever the case may be, that they can order quicker and we can keep the line moving.”

Krystal is also using its signage to improve upon the drive-thru experience. Pendergast says it’s working with business partner Coca-Cola to transform the menuboard so it’s organized better, with different bundles and revised pricing structures.

“We believe, in addition to the marketing and promotions, that the pre-sell board and the menuboard are the key tools we have to shape and influence the customer’s purchasing decision,” he says. “So we’re looking to make it easier for them to buy what they’d like to buy; easier to evaluate their choices; and encouraging them to buy items that we think will drive not only satisfaction, but will be efficient for the kitchen and the team to execute.”

With the exception of Chick-fil-A, benchmark brands continue to put a heavy investment in another visual tool: order confirmation boards (ocb). Every brand in the benchmark group increased its percentage of units with an OCB (even Chick-fil-A went from 8 percent of units with an OCB to 12.2 percent this year).

“We’ve found that customers truly appreciate seeing their order keyed in right after they order it, and that helps them make certain that they’ve said everything they wanted,” Wendy’s Lynch says. “Sometimes customers forget that they wanted a Frosty, or they forget to tell us. So it’s verification, but it’s also verification that the employee heard them correctly and keyed it in correctly.”