Special Report | October 2011 | By Sam Oches

QSR Drive-Thru Performance Study

How does your brand stack up to the seven best drive-thru chains in the nation?

It’s true that different brands excel at different things, be it in the area of nutritional offerings, customer service, or speed.

It’s true, too, with drive-thru service; some brands perform better than the rest. And this year the QSR Drive-Thru Performance Study focuses on seven brands as a benchmark group that have consistently, year after year, risen to the top of the heap in drive-thru performance.

Drive-thru performance was first studied in 1998 to gauge the speed and accuracy of fast feeders and encourage the industry to improve its service. And improve it did:

  • In 1998, the fastest quick-service drive thru, Long John Silver’s, averaged a time of 159.1 seconds, and Whataburger topped the accuracy rankings with 86.7 percent of its orders served correctly.
  • By 2003 the top speed performer, Wendy’s, had improved the mark by more than 40 seconds, with a time of 116.2 seconds, while tops in accuracy went to Chick-fil-A at 97.3 percent correct orders, an improvement of more than 10 percentage points.
  • By 2009, the last time speed and accuracy were studied, Wendy’s was once again tops in speed with 134.1 seconds, while Chick-fil-A was best in accuracy with 96.4 percent of its orders correct.

Over the years, a select number of chains were consistently outperforming the rest of the study group year in and year out. This benchmark group defines drive-thru performance for the industry and sets the bar quick serves can use to judge their drive-thru operations. That’s why these companies are the focus of the Drive-Thru Performance Study, which is co-owned by QSR® magazine and Insula Research.

The benchmark group includes the top six performers over the life of the study—Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Krystal, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s—plus a regional chain that has also performed well historically. This year that chain is Del Taco, although QSR and Insula will rotate that selection in future years.

The New Approach to Speed

The high-water mark for speed remains Wendy’s 116.2-second performance in 2003. Since then, drive-thru service times have slowed a bit, though the brands that compose the benchmark group are fairly consistent with service time.

This year, Wendy’s is fastest once again with an average time of 145.5 seconds, while Taco Bell is second at 146.7 seconds and McDonald’s has the longest time at 184.2 seconds.

Brian Baker, president of Insula Research, says speed peaked over the course of the last several years of the study, but that customers have different expectations than they used to when it comes to wait times.

“It was interesting that 81.6 percent of our researchers said speed was ‘about right,’ and another slightly over 17 percent responded ‘slow,’” Baker says.

“If you look at a lot of the recent consumer data, they seem to infer that speed is no longer as critical a factor for people going through the drive thru. When I look at this, it’s telling me speed is very important—it’s just now the bar has been raised for our expectations. We are expecting it to be three or four minutes, and if it’s not, I’m dissatisfied.”

Though the benchmark brands have not increased their speed over past years, all the operators who commented for the study say they are working to improve the efficiency of their drive thrus so that the speed can improve.

Taco Bell, for instance, is constantly looking for new tools that will streamline the drive-thru process, says Mike Harkins, vice president of operations for the company.

“We want to make sure that the technology initiatives we use enable our team members—and particularly what we call ‘service champions,’ who are the ones interacting with the customers in the drive thru—to do some of the tasks that they need to do that may [otherwise] take their mind off of engaging with the customer,” Harkins says.

Taco Bell’s approach to speed is ensuring the crewmember operating the drive thru has more time to commit to the customer, and it reflects a focus on time utilization throughout the benchmark group. More are tweaking the customer-service aspect of their drive thrus in order to enhance whatever time the customer has to spend in the lane.

“You have an option as a brand,” Harkins says. “There are things that are happening with technology and other things that are out there that you can certainly improve on [speed]. ... You can also take that opportunity to enhance the overall experience with the customer by having your team members engage more with your customers and still keep the time frame the same.”

Kevin Pope, director of operations services at Del Taco, says the Southern California chain considers the time spent at the pick-up window the most important aspect of its drive-thru speed. That explains the company’s internal drive-thru motto, “Food beats car to window.”

He says Del Taco is also focused on using what time it has with the customer to engage with them and ensure they have the best experience possible.

“It’s not just a voice-box anymore, it’s not just, ‘What do you want? Here you go, see you later,’” he says. “Whether we’re taking orders outside personally or inside on a headset, we’ve got to make sure that smiles can be seen and heard.”

Howard Nelson, vice president of operations for Krystal, says his company’s drive-thru cashiers go through a certification process before taking the reins. Certified cashiers receive a $2-an-hour raise as a way to show Krystal’s commitment to superior service in the drive thru.

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