Special Report | October 2013 | By Sam Oches

The Drive-Thru Performance Study

It used to be that speed of service was the most important part of the drive thru. But times have changed.

Fast food drive thrus are slowing down as consumers demand premium menus.
Chick-fil-A averages a whopping 6.09 cars in its drive thru at any given time. chick-fil-a / Stanley Leary
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Since the advent of the modern quick-service drive thru—some would say in the early 1970s, though the idea of a pick-up window has been around for much longer—operators have tinkered with the nuts and bolts to create a drive thru that is as fast, efficient, and pleasant as possible. Innovations throughout the years, from wireless headsets and order-confirmation boards to dual lanes and pre-sell signage, have created a better drive thru capable of handling the 60–70 percent of business that now loops the exterior of most quick-service restaurants.

With the Drive-Thru Performance Study, QSR—together with Columbus, Ohio–based Insula Research, which co-owns the proprietary report—has monitored the innovations and success of quick-serve drive thrus for the last 15 years. And since 2011, we’ve pared down the industry to a benchmark group, a set of six permanent brands—Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Krystal, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s—along with one annually rotating brand—this year’s being Taco John’s—that regularly perform best in the drive-thru arena, to get a better idea of what companies can aspire to in the future.

Some trends have emerged from the benchmark group that signal an evolving drive-thru industry. Accuracy, for example, has topped out around 90 percent for most brands. Cleanliness and favorable exteriors are clearly a major investment in the industry. And order-confirmation boards (OCB) have become a preferred tool among brands not named Chick-fil-A.

This year, one additional thing became clear: Speed of service, it seems, may never be the same in quick-service drive thrus, especially among the benchmark group. McDonald’s experienced its slowest average speed of service in the history of the Drive-Thru Study, at 189.49 seconds; Chick-fil-A’s speed (203.88 seconds) was its slowest showing since 1998, Krystal’s (217.89) since 1999. Burger King was the only brand that improved speed of service over last year.

But that’s not to say the decline in speed is a bad thing. Times, of course, are changing. Food isn’t so simple anymore. Burgers and fries have become burrito bowls and customizable salad kits.

“We knew going into this year’s Study that speed-of-service times seemed to have plateaued over the last few years, but we did not really expect to see the nearly across-the-board increases in service times that were apparent,” says Brian Baker, president of Insula Research. “One explanation for longer service times could be a more complex menu for operators to deal with, as many restaurants have introduced more healthy options that in some cases could take longer to prepare.”

Baker says slower service times can also be attributed to busier drive-thru lanes. Whether it’s due to increased overall interest in the quick-service industry or a shifting balance of traffic from the dining room to the drive thru, Baker says, the average number of vehicles in line during researchers’ trips through the drive thru was up over 2012. “The number of other vehicles in line for service is critical when assessing service speeds because it has such a dramatic impact on a restaurant’s ability to process any given customer,” he says.

That could help explain Chick-fil-A’s speed-of-service marks. The chicken chain had, on average, more than six cars in the drive-thru queue, far and away the most among the benchmark group and nearly a full vehicle more than the brand witnessed last year.

Mark Moraitakis, Chick-fil-A’s director of hospitality and service design, says the company is investing more in dual-lane drive thrus to better handle capacity issues. But he adds that it’s not just Chick-fil-A’s bumper-to-bumper drive-thru lanes that are slowing things down; the move toward more specialty sandwiches, he says, is also adding seconds to service time. And while Chick-fil-A does not willingly sacrifice speed of service to improve the broader drive-thru experience, he says, the company is rethinking the trip around the restaurant to enhance components that might, in turn, streamline the entire process.

“We can help team members be more operationally efficient; we also help them be more hospitable and show care and concern for the customer. So we’re trying to minimize any barriers that they might have so they can maximize their ability to connect with guests in a personal way,” Moraitakis says. “When you have Chick-fil-A team members who are making eye contact with you and listening to you, even through a speaker box, they’re more attentive, they’re more focused, they’re more likely to get it right … and they’re also more likely to get it out with much more grace and efficiency.”

Representatives from other benchmark brands also acknowledge that operational complexities might be pumping the brakes in the drive thru. But like Moraitakis and Chick-fil-A, they are rethinking the approach to speed as products evolve and the consumer experience becomes a more crucial component to drive-thru success.

Rob Savage, chief operations officer at Taco Bell, says the company is not trying too hard to speed up the drive thru because customers haven’t been complaining about its existing service time.

“You can get really fast but ruin the overall experience, because now you’re not friendly and now you’re not taking the time to guarantee accuracy or make sure the products have been built the way you want them to be built,” Savage says. “So there’s a careful balance in there that we have to continually look at through our testing process, through our food innovation labs, to make sure that the packaging we’re providing, the product builds, the tools we give, the training we give, is such that it will support our current speed targets but allow us to continue to improve on our experience, on our accuracy, on our friendliness.”

Of course, speed is still a top priority at benchmark brands, and they continue to design systems and procedures accordingly. For example, Wendy’s spokesman Denny Lynch says the company uses a separate grill and sandwich station in the drive thru to maintain its industry-best speeds, and it trains and cross-trains employees repeatedly to ensure the fastest speeds. Taco John’s, meanwhile, is revisiting its drive-thru layout to improve little things here and there that might impede the ability to service the drive thru quickly.

“We’re kind of going back to the basics and just looking at how we shave off seconds in our kitchens and make it more efficient for our employees, because they’re kind of taking too many steps,” says Shawn Eby, vice president of operations at Taco John’s. “Every little step adds an extra second, and that speed of service makes it longer and longer.”

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