Special Report | October 2013 | By Sam Oches

The Drive-Thru Performance Study

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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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“I think with speed, obviously you’ll hear people say, ‘Well if you improve by 10 seconds, you can add this much in sales,’” adds Carmen Gianguzzo, director of franchise operations at Taco John’s. “Speed is not the end game, but we do want to look at anything we can do to enhance that, whether it’s looking at standardized, new drive-thru menuboards that should help simplify the ordering process … [or] we want to eliminate anything that gets in the way of speed that isn’t critical toward quality or guest experience.”

Still, the industry’s evolution toward more complex menu items and consumers’ purchasing behaviors signal that speed-of-service times may never return to the highs of the mid-2000s heyday. And brands are discovering that even slight tweaks to the menu or operations can have a significant effect on speed of service in the drive thru.

Take Krystal as an example. The company’s average speed of service fell more than 40 seconds over last year’s 175.94-second showing. Krystal CEO Doug Pendergast, who joined the brand in 2012 and spearheaded its recent move from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, acknowledges that he didn’t expect speed of service to improve this year because the company has been undergoing several operational changes to improve the overall business.

“We have not had the time to focus on the drive thru as much as we’d like, but we have been able to build a new scorecard where we’re tracking every single score, every single day, week, period, and quarter, based on the window time,” Pendergast says, noting that the company focuses mostly on window speed of service so as not to rush customers at the ordering station. “So I think we now have the leadership in place, the data in place, to begin to systematically improve what we’re doing.”

Pendergast adds that Krystal has experienced a shift in its menu mix, with more customers purchasing bulk orders of Krystal’s signature sliders.

“Right now, as an example, over 20 percent of our sales are multi-packs—12 packs, 24 packs of Krystals,” he says. “That’s a pretty significant increase from what it was when we came into the company just over a year ago. That’s a little bit more of a challenge to execute in a drive-thru environment. So we’re working on the changes and procedures, layout, and production to make that happen.” He says the company is developing a new store prototype that reconfigures the drive-thru set-up; tests have shown that the new prototype cuts about 20 seconds off the Krystal drive-thru experience.

Eby says Taco John’s internal speed-of-service benchmark in the drive thru is 180 seconds, almost exactly its measured time (181.19 seconds) in this year’s Study. But he adds that the figure is not set in stone, as speed of service is a fluid metric that evolves across the system.

“I think for guests, they want it fast, but everyone’s perception of fast is different,” he says. “But they absolutely want the order correct, and they want the food hot and fresh, so you have to have a combination of those. But the first two come
before speed.”

If operators were to formally rank their priorities, accuracy would likely be No. 1 at each of the benchmark brands. It doesn’t matter how fast you get the food out, brand reps say; if the order is wrong, the whole experience turns sour.

Accuracy has come a long way since the Drive-Thru Study’s inaugural year. In 1998, accuracy ratings for today’s benchmark brands were as low as 61.8 percent and only as high as 83.9 percent. Today, their accuracy ratings range from 79.5 to 91.6 percent. Even though accuracy has slipped slightly since last year—average order accuracy at benchmark brands last year was 88.8 percent, compared with 87.2 percent this year—operators are still laser-focused on making sure the right food is being served to the right cars.

Similar to speed of service, the complexities involved with new menu items are affecting the way the benchmark brands approach accuracy in the drive thru. Lynch uses Wendy’s Berry Almond Chicken Salad as an example of a premium product that throws a wrench into the drive-thru process. The salad comes with dressings, almonds, and croutons in separate packages and can be customized based on how the customer designs the order. “Those things, the customer likes, but it makes it tougher in the drive thru to make sure you have all of the condiments and the extra ingredients that go with the whole meal,” Lynch says. “So order accuracy becomes a constant point of emphasis.”

Savage shares a similar story in regards to Taco Bell’s new Cantina Bell menu. The burritos and bowls have nearly 10 ingredients, he says, making it the most complex product line the chain serves. Taco Bell has rolled out special training procedures to ensure employees are able to consistently serve the right product. Another system that ensures accuracy at Taco Bell is a triple-check system, Savage says. At most restaurants, orders are confirmed through an OCB, the crewmember repeating the order to the customer over the speaker box, and then an employee repeating the order one final time at the pick-up window.

“In our best circumstance, they repeat the order back to the customer and say, ‘Here are your two Doritos Locos Tacos and your Cantina Bowl,’” Savage says. “So you as a customer felt good when you ordered it, because we guaranteed on the screen and when we brought it up to you, and then when it’s being handed to you at the drive thru. You feel good that we paid attention to your order specifically because that team member is presenting it to you.”

While accuracy percentages in the Study can be affected by mistakes that OCBs cannot control—missing napkins, for example, or inaccurate change—the boards are increasingly employed by the benchmark brands to improve accuracy in the drive thru. The vast majority of Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s units studied this year had an OCB in place, while the share of Taco Bell restaurants with one in place grew over last year.

Chick-fil-A has famously opted against using OCBs; the brand only has the boards in place at 11.7 percent of its restaurants. Moraitakis says the company is leveraging people over technology under the belief that employees firing on all cylinders can be plenty fast and accurate.

“I think there’s a concern that speed of service could slow down [with OCBs],” he says. “We can think of what all the reasons are you would want an order-confirmation board, and then … design the experience that gives you those without that actual technology. That’s been our philosophy at this point as we’ve thought through all the ways we can enhance the drive-thru experience. We’d rather people be our confirmation board.”

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