We were all minding our business here at QSR one October morning in 2019. Then, Fox News opened the floodgates. The company ran with a headline calling Chick-fil-A, the “slowest drive-thru in America,” crediting us, and the angst poured in on social media. Yes, technically, our 2019 QSR magazine Drive-Thru Study listed the chicken giant last by time, at nearly 323 seconds—well behind Dunkin’s 230.38 mark. But Fox News missed the point.
The notion that speed, and speed alone, inspires success at the drive-thru is substantially flawed. The channel can’t be viewed through a one-lens filter, especially given what’s unfolded this past year. Chick-fil-A’s case was a straightforward one: In that study, the brand had six or more cars 35.5 percent of the time. No other quick-serve cracked 10 percent. Six brands reported at zero. For zero to two cars, Chick-fil-A came in at 23 percent. Every other chain was above 50, with the average settling at 75.2 percent.
So Chick-fil-A was just more crowded than everybody else. It’s going to take longer to move six cars through the line than one. Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A scored first in order accuracy and a handful of other satisfaction metrics, like “pleasant demeanor” and making eye contact. Not to be forgotten, the brand’s employees walk the line and take orders along the path. In turn, when the clock actually starts is a cloudy point and not fair to place side-by-side with traditional menuboards.
Not surprisingly, our 2021 edition showed similar baselines to the 2019 one. Chick-fil-A lagged in speed of service, topped in accuracy, and shined throughout. When I spoke with Khalilah Cooper, Chick-fil-A’s senior director of service and hospitality, we reminisced about the Fox News media storm of two years ago. We all know how social media works these days, and this isn’t a critical lament on my part—I’m guilty of it, too. People scan headlines and dive into the comments.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to provide context behind easy-to-sell storylines (like Chick-fil-A is the slowest). But here’s the notable thing—why were people so mad at us about that 2019 study? Because they thought we were crazy. Chick-fil-A is the slowest? “Your stopwatch must be broken.” Or, even more common: “I just went there and it moved amazingly fast.” Yet, actually, from pull up to peel out, it didn’t. It only felt like it did. And that is what Cooper and I spent a lot of time chatting about. The perception of speed versus concrete clocked speed is where Chick-fil-A has changed the game. Even when you drive by a Chick-fil-A, you see the massive line moving. When you’re in it, your car is hardly static. That’s no aberration, and it’s taken remarkably tight and complex operations to get there.
Guests in our 2021 QSR magazine Drive-Thru Study said they were OK sitting a maximum of 13 minutes at the drive-thru, more than last year’s 12 minutes. My guess is this has as much to do with smart phones as anything else. Yet there is a customer-facing element at work. As Cooper calls it, a “level of trust.” People have to believe the experience is going to be a good one when they decided to get in line. Simply getting your order taken early, instead of waiting behind 12 cars to do so, makes a difference. So does the order coming out accurate and employees delivering hospitality. Hence, the check-point system Chick-fil-A deploys to engage with guests multiple times along their journey.
The lesson in all of this, however, is that drive-thru success should be a combination of data and understanding where to look. What metric mattered to each brand’s core base wasn’t black-and-white. Speed might be the main draw at some chains. Tech and menu confirmation boards the answer at another. As always, the best place to start isn’t blindly taking action; it’s listening to consumers. And that’s where the winners in this year’s study raced ahead of the pack.