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    The 2019 QSR Drive-Thru Study

  • The drive-thru lane has reigned in quick service for 70 years. But with off-premises booming and new technologies thriving, will drive thru ever be the same?

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    With so much innovation at hand, the question remains: How is drive-thru performance holding up?

    Ah, the drive thru. The bastion of simpler times. The slice of Americana that, even as the rest of the world changes all around us, remains our unwavering access point to cheap, convenient food. 

    If only that were true. As with most other elements of the restaurant operation, the drive-thru lane is in the midst of a digital upheaval, a complete evolution that is rethinking the customer experience and making more efficient the complicated back-of-house. What began a decade ago as a shift toward LED menuboards and high-quality speakers and headsets has since become an embrace of a top-to-bottom digital experience that begins as early as the customer's home or office.

    How did we get here? Put simply, Americans increasingly demanded cheap-yet-quality food while they were on the go, and drive-thru speed of service and order accuracy could only go so far in the fight for market share. Digital menuboards dressed up the drive-thru presentation while lending operators more control over their menu layout and promotions. Tablet technology allowed some brands (ahem, Chick-fil-A) to look beyond dual lanes in the fight against bottlenecks. And a new fleet of POS services provided foundational support to the team members in the back of the house. 

    Then, about a half-decade ago, the second innovation wave crashed down on the industry. Mobile ordering became the trend du jour among drive-thru strategists, with many of them certain that a mobile strategy could alter the drive-thru experience as we know it. And to some degree, that has come to pass; Dunkin' has been rolling out mobile-order-only lanes, while fast casuals like Chipotle and CAVA are investing in drive thru for the first time with windows for mobile order pickup. 

    But mobile ordering seems almost quaint compared with the latest murmurs among the drive thru in-crowd. The newest buzzword is AI—artificial intelligence—which could improve the drive-thru operation by replacing the employee at the speaker, recognizing each car's past orders, or simply predicting what the customer might want to order at that particular time of day. Case in point: McDonald's acquired Dynamic Yield for more than $300 million back in March, and it could prove to be one of the single most consequential moments in industry history. The Golden Arches intend to use that company's powerful data technology to tailor the drive-thru menuboard according to weather, traffic patterns, trending items, or the customer's order in process. 

    With so much innovation at hand, the questions remain: How is drive-thru performance holding up? And what are brands doing to maintain their drive-thru fundamentals?

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    2019 QSR drive-thru performance study Methodology

    Data for the 2019 QSR Drive-Thru Performance Study was collected and tabulated by SeeLevel HX. The study included 10 chains and data from 1,503 visits, with the following break-down of visits by chain: Arby's (165), Burger King (165), Carl's Jr. (82), Chick-fil-A (183), Dunkin' (165), Hardee's (83), KFC (165), McDonald's (165), Taco Bell (165), and Wendy's (165). Visits were conducted across the country, across all regions and dayparts. No restaurant location was visited more than once. All data was collected between June 1 and August 1.

    Daypart analysis was based on the time of day of the visit—breakfast (5-9 a.m.), mid-morning (9-11:30 a.m.), lunch (11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.), late afternoon (1:30-4 p.m.), and dinner (4-7 p.m.). The distribution of visits mirrored revenue by daypart.

    Upon each visit, a data collection researcher surveyed the drive-thru lane and then entered the line as any other customer. Each order placed by our researchers consisted of one main item, one side item, and one beverage. A minor special request was also made with each order, such as beverage with no ice. Although two different speed-of-service times were recorded for each visit (one for the researchers' order/experience and another from a randomly selected vehicle), all tables within this feature are related to the researchers' own vehicle and experience only, as this was the controlled order. Service time was defined as the time from stopping at the order station to receipt of all items (including change). Additional data collected by each researcher included but was not limited to: order accuracy, drive-thru and exterior appearance, speaker clarity, and customer service. All purchases were made using cash so as not to influence timing.