As part of this year’s Drive-Thru Study, data partner SeeLevel HX researched thousands of drive-thru restaurants across the country. Here’s what Steven Maskell, partner at SeeLevel HX, learned from this year’s data—and where he thinks drive thru goes from here.

On trends that emerged this year:

The first is that many quick serves are leveraging technology to squeeze out seconds from their total transaction times. Whether it’s with double drive thrus, employees in line with remote ordering, or order-confirmation boards, the brands are doing their best to maximize their meal-period counts. What was interesting is that total transaction times have increased slightly from last year, even with meal periods weighted, which suggests that something else is at play.

On what surprised researchers:

It was surprising to see that total transaction times have increased slightly. What was also surprising was to see that the made-to-order chains, such as Panera, are very close to the transaction times expected of the more traditional quick serves. If these [fast-casual brands] start to use the technology that speeds up total transaction times, they will be within a few seconds of most of the traditional operators.

On areas where operators should improve:

There is a significant dip in service times when the number of cars starts to grow; the data and the technology are there for operators to let their teams know that they are about to get a pop in traffic. The recovery time from a couple of cars appears to take a little while, even as the meal-period traffic surges. All this is to say the operators consistently struggle once they start a line over three cars long. Another area is order accuracy; this year’s data are strong, but things fall apart as volume starts to peak. It’s almost as if the operators aren’t ready for the surge, but once it happens, they react well and hit their stride.

On brands that stood out:

PDQ is on a number of companies’ radars, and it’s for a reason. While still a small player in the space, it’s done well with both food quality as well as solid execution on drive-thru service. I’m looking forward to watching this brand progress. Starbucks has become a fixture in the drive-thru space, and it stands out as a good operator, especially when one considers the potential menu permutations.

On how the drive thru is evolving:

My overall impression is that the traditional operators have done close to all they can to optimize their drive-thru operations and are now focusing, as brands, on their meal offerings. In turn, they have some new entrants to the marketplace that have already solved the equation when it comes to meal offerings. These fast-casual brands are taking a play from the top 10 and setting themselves up to offer both the fresh meals consumers want and the times that consumers have been trained to expect.