Special Report | October 2012 | By Sam Oches

2012 QSR Drive-Thru Study

How the best drive-thru operations in the industry make the wheels go ’round.

Taco Bell has the second fastest drive thru in quick service. image used with permission.

The drive-thru operation of a quick-service restaurant may seem relatively cut and dried, but operators aren’t resting on their laurels when it comes to their outdoor business. For many brands in the industry, the drive thru can account for anywhere between 50 and 70 percent of sales—no small number in a $200 billion industry.

For the last 14 years, QSR has challenged operators to improve their drive-thru business through the Drive-Thru Performance Study, a proprietary report co-owned by QSR and Columbus, Ohio–based Insula Research. And in the report’s first decade, operators rose to the challenge; over that time, brands fine-tuned their operations and improved on elements such as speed and accuracy.

However, it became clear that a number of brands stood above the rest in the drive-thru business. So in 2011, QSR and Insula Research debuted the benchmark group of the best brands in drive thru, including six permanent brands—McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, Burger King, Krystal, and Taco Bell—along with one rotating regional chain, which was Del Taco in the benchmark group’s inaugural year.

This year, we take a look at how the six mainstays—along with 2012’s regional chain, Bojangles’—have fared since we launched the benchmark group. Have speed and accuracy really hit a wall? Did crewmembers get a refresher course on “please” and “thank you”? And can cleanliness really affect the overall drive-thru experience? Read on to find out.

The reverse tales of speed and accuracy

The two easiest gauges of a drive thru’s health, speed and accuracy remain the two strategies at the top of every operator’s drive-thru manual. And according to this year’s data, the benchmark group continues to post stellar numbers in accuracy. Burger King has the lowest rate with 83 percent accuracy (6.7 percentage points lower than its performance last year), while Chick-fil-A is tops with 92.4 percent. McDonald’s (90.9 percent), Taco Bell (91.2), and Wendy’s (89.9) all improved over 2011.

However, since the high-water mark for speed in a drive thru came courtesy of Wendy’s in 2003 (at an eye-popping 116.2 seconds), speed has tapered off for nearly every brand in the study.

That trend continued this year. Wendy’s is the only brand to improve on its average service time over last year, which it did with gusto by clocking in at an average 129.75 seconds, nearly 16 seconds better than last year. Denny Lynch, senior vice president of communications at Wendy’s, thinks there is always room for operators to improve upon their drive-thru speed. Menu proliferation, he says, is one thing that has possibly driven average service times up over the last several years.

“You want a chicken sandwich, and you want mustard, pickle, onion on it? OK, I get the chicken fillet, the mustard, pickle, and onion, put it on a bun, wrap it up, and you’ve got it,” Lynch says. “You want a smoothie? OK, I’ve got to get the ingredients, I’ve got to portion out the ingredients, I’ve got to put it into a blender and smooth it.

“Because of that, you put the stress on the speed of service at the pick-up window. … I think that has influenced the total speed of service.”

Brian Baker, president of Insula Research, confirms that complex menus are likely to blame for the fact that drive-thru speed has plateaued the last seven or eight years. While he suggests it’s not necessarily a bad thing that speed hasn’t continued to improve—“If you get any faster ... your consumer is going to start to feel rushed”—he says pre-sell menuboards sometimes help speed up drive-thru service time.

“The benchmark group is primarily national chains, but I would expect to see more of a dramatic impact [from pre-sell boards] if you were a regional player and you’re looking to expand the geography where you operate,” Baker says. “When you’re going into new markets, I think they would be even more important, that you give people the opportunity to familiarize themselves with your menu before they get to the order point.”

The Performance Study shows that Baker is right; Bojangles’, the lone regional chain in this year’s study, sees average service times increase nearly 30 seconds in units with pre-sell boards compared with units without the boards.

Pre-sell boards don’t improve service times everywhere, however. Two of the benchmark chains, McDonald’s and Burger King, have better average service times at units without pre-sell boards than those with the boards.

Lynch says Wendy’s pays attention to small details in its kitchen and assembly areas to help push service times down. For example, something seemingly negligible like the position of the fridge door handle can affect the speed with which a crewmember can get food out of the window.

“One of the things that we’re constantly looking at is, How do we prepare for our rush periods and a pre-rush period?” he says. “How can we get our condiments, utensils, napkins, and all of that prepared, so that when a lunch rush comes, you’re highly efficient? You’re not having to run to the back room to get supplies; they’re all appropriated by the pick-up window right in your space. So those are things that you’ve really got to be ready for.”

Similarly, executives at Bojangles’ believe they can shave seconds off their service time by paying attention to the little details. And for a chain that offers more complex menu items like mac ‘n cheese, green beans, rice, and pinto beans, Bojangles’ needs all the efficiencies it can get.

Kenneth Avery, vice president of operations at Bojangles’, says these efficiencies include limiting the number of suggestive sells and teaming the same drive-thru crewmembers regularly so they learn to work well together.

“One of the things we did in our [operators instructional] DVD is we told people that, ‘Hey, every time out the window is a second,’” Avery says. “So we started setting things like, two or more drinks automatically go in a carrier; now you’re out the window one time instead of passing the drinks out individually. So we’ve looked at some of those things as a way to speed up the line.”

At Krystal, average service time climbed from 155.9 seconds in 2011 to 175.94 in 2012. CEO Doug Pendergast, who joined the brand in April, says the company is actively retooling its strategies to improve its average service time. One of the ways it’s doing that, he says, is by re-examining the menu options offered on the drive-thru menuboard and focusing solely on the brand’s core items. Krystal is also reconfiguring the ways in which it analyzes drive-thru speed.



Yes the Summit pts timer

I will take freshness and quality over speed every time!

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Thank you Chick-fil-A for setting standards in more ways than one. Your teams are my heroes and I do mean your front line teams and your adherence to your core corporate philosophy. Very nice to see, Competent, Nice and Dedication lead an industry. My best to you.

Del Taco is the FASTEST. At least my Del Taco is. Crazy fast drive thru line.

That's great. The two Del Tacos where I lived in CA were both ridiculously slow. At least I got hot food.

they all cheat anyway. can you pull off to the side and have someone bring it out for you?

Of all the companies I've ever written to with a complaint, comment, or suggestion, Burger King is the ONLY one who didn't respond to my complaint with at least a letter of apology and/or a coupon for a future visit. I will say that the situation at my local BK improved, so maybe my letter did some good, even if BK didn't acknowledge it.

Do you just go around complaining all the time?

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I can vouch for Wendy's efforts at improving service times. They do it in a number of ways. First, everyone wears a headset. That way, if you're not busy, you can pitch in to assist the drive-thru by setting up the frozen desserts or something else. Second, the crew is assigned to certain duties but, in case of a bottleneck, are moved to another area to assist until the problem is handled. Third, over the past few years, they have installed timers in the stores that track the customer service times from the second the customer arrives at the drive-thru menu board until they drive off. These timers record how long the customer is at the menu board, how long the customer is in the drive-thru line after ordering, how long the customer waits at the drive-thru window waiting to receive their order and how long it takes them to clear the drive-thru area. Additionally, cashiers have change ready before the customer arrives at their window and, at the second window, all the condiments and paper goods are stocked for quick packing and service. No one in the drive-thru service team is to leave the service to retrieve paper goods, condiments, etc, because someone outside of the drive-thru area is assigned that chore. Managers are encouraged to set up contests for the fastest service time during a certain time period, ie. a week. It's very much team-oriented and is taken very seriously. Managers are always involved with this service, too. There is no such nthing as a manager sitting in the office during a rush period.

in my neighborhood which is considered among the poorer area we have mcdonalds and a wendys side by side both very modern but mcdonalds out sells wendys 5 to 1. Could someone tell me why?

Wendy only won, because they interrupt you several times while you try to order.

Wendy's may be fast, but unfortunately the food is horrible. Not only do they not put out the correct orders, the food is of the poorest quality!!!! I would much rather wait longer food foodthat is edible than to get bad food fast!!!!

Agreed. Wendy's may be fast, but their food is one of the worst. Its too bad because I remember liking Wendy's years ago. Bring the old food back.


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