The QSR Drive-Thru Performance: A Closer Look



Nineteen years after the first Drive-Thru Study, the leading brands in quick service continue to post impressive performance in the outdoor lane—but so do emerging and fast-casual chains.

This year’s study once again audited performance at 11 national quick-service chains and four emerging or fast-casual concepts that are challenging the status quo in drive thru. And those emerging concepts held their own in the competitive drive-thru operation.

Steven Maskell, partner at SeeLevel HX, which conducted the study, says he was surprised by the performance of fast-casual brands Zaxby’s, Tim Hortons, and Raising Cane’s, all of which had speed and accuracy numbers comparable to the quick-service brands that have been doing drive thru for decades. “Their performance suggests that we need to keep our eyes on them,” he says.

Indeed, Raising Cane’s celebrated its first appearance in the Drive-Thru Study in impressive fashion; the chicken-finger concept landed No. 1 in both speed of service and order accuracy, unseating long-time champions Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A in those respective categories.

“We have to reiterate our mention regarding Raising Cane’s, a newcomer that did very well in almost all categories: first in service time, first in order accuracy, third in exterior appearance, third in speaker clarity, and first in menuboard appearance,” Maskell says.

He adds that there was plenty of movement in this year’s data across multiple categories. Starbucks, for one, improved in several categories one year after it suffered the slowest speed-of-service metrics. Hardee’s, meanwhile, saw its performance sag in many categories this year.

“Wait times have become longer across the industry, but in contrast, we saw 2 seconds shaved off the average service time,” Maskell says. This year’s average wait time (69.55 seconds) was 9.2 seconds longer than last year. The average wait time describes the time between when a car pulls into the drive-thru lane to when it places its order.

To elevate their performance, operators should be “constantly monitoring performance and implementing changes that will make the drive-thru experience as fast, accurate, and pleasant for consumers as possible,” he adds.

That’s what Zaxby’s is working on. David Moon, vice president of franchise operations and training at Zaxby’s, says the company zeroes in on its drive-thru team and their work stations to ensure the stores are serving accurate orders as quickly as possible.

“One of the first things I would tell you is having clearly defined roles and responsibilities for each team member at the drive-thru station,” Moon says. “The reason we do that … is it reduces the duplication of efforts and makes the work flow more efficient.”

To further enhance its drive-thru efficiency, Zaxby’s has a manager present to verify orders so that every one is accurate. It also installs a scoreboard that cashiers can view to know whether they’re “winning or losing the game,” or whether they’re meeting time goals.

Of course, the quick-serve industry is still a people business, and Maskell says operators should invest in how customers engage with the brand when trying to improve their drive-thru performance. That includes with mobile technologies. Every executive interviewed as part of the study said mobile tools like ordering apps will drastically change the drive-thru experience in the coming years.

Scott Murphy, senior vice president of operations at Dunkin’ Donuts, says the On-the-Go Mobile Ordering app for the company’s DD Perks Rewards members was one of its “most game-changing initiatives” in its history. “Not only is it a way to drive membership in our loyalty program, it is also a clear demonstration of our commitment to enhancing convenience for our guests through technology-based initiatives,” he says.

Murphy adds that technology advancements and “a progressive digital experience” will continue to influence how the entire industry approaches drive thru.