Special Report | October 2014 | By Sam Oches

The Drive-Thru Performance Study

How does your brand stack up against the drive-thru competition?
Quick service restaurant brands enhance drive thru systems to improve operation.
El Pollo Loco employees tell customers what is in every bag they hand them to improve order accuracy in the drive thru. El Pollo Loco

A lot has been said about the dramatic transformation the limited-service restaurant industry has experienced in the last five to 10 years. Observers have noted a range of factors that have shoved along the change, from the pressures to offer healthier food to younger generations’ desire for more creative menu opportunities.

But there’s a bigger reason for all of this change, an explanation for why innovation and development in the limited-service space has entered overdrive: competition. The sheer number of brands crowding into every niche imaginable in quick service has forced players to become better, faster, stronger, more convenient. And that pressure to perform at a higher level has had broad implications on the drive-thru operation, where companies have tinkered with various components in an effort to create an outdoor lane that facilitates a top-shelf brand experience.

QSR has monitored the changing drive thru for the last 16 years, measuring the industry’s evolution in metrics such as speed and accuracy. A few things have become clear over the last few years. For one, it was obvious that speed and accuracy were going in different directions, the former plateauing, even slowing down, as menu items became more complex, the latter improving as brands stressed operational efficiencies. Secondly, as the data conformed to more rigorous standards at each of the benchmark brands, the story about the drive-thru operation’s present and future became less interesting; the data, less practical.

This year, we approached the Drive-Thru Study considering how the data and the story might be most resourceful for the quick-service industry. To that end, we researched 23 of the top drive-thru brands, and, rather than analyze the data based on individual chains, we took a look at the numbers through two separate lenses that are increasingly shading the industry conversation. One is individual dayparts, reflecting operators’ push toward more business during nontradtional meal times; the other is menu segment and the crowding field that most major brands find themselves playing in. It’s all in an effort to better set a precedent for what really matters in your business: how to beat the competition.

“Instead of a chain-by-chain analysis, we thought it would be interesting to examine how service during different dayparts might look,” says Brian Baker, who has headed the Drive-Thru Study since its inception. “We also segmented chains based on menu so we can explore differences based on what you might be craving any particular day. Although some of the results were expected, there were a few surprises along the way, too.”

Traditionally, speed, accuracy, and a friendly, pleasant experience have always been top concerns for quick-service operators as they evaluate the success of their drive thru. But each has gone its separate way in the last several years as the brands have tailored their drive thrus to evolving consumer demands.

For its part, speed used to be a badge of honor for many chains. Faster service means happier customers and more cars through the line, both of which can boost perception and sales. Last year, though, the narrative on speed of service in the drive thru took a big U-turn. The overall average speed of service across the benchmark group slowed down about eight seconds over the previous year, to 180.83 seconds, and operators said menu complexities and the push toward premium items were responsible.

The slow-down trend appears to have continued this year. While it’s impossible to compare this year’s speed-of-service data directly to last year’s, the numbers this year were still telling: overall speed of service across the 23 brands studied was 203.29 seconds. And once again, brand representatives say, premium menu items are to blame.

“I think what’s changed … is consumer needs are changing rapidly. It’s not really that we’re changing the service; it’s how we accustom our mindsets to say that not everything is going to be a Doritos Locos Taco that you deliver in the restaurant,” says Mike Grams, chief operating officer of Taco Bell. “There are going to be more complex products coming in, and we just have to change our training methods, our engagement plans in the restaurant, and how we approach them so that we can execute and still be relatively at a good speed that customers are going to be comfortable with.”

Taco Bell witnessed this shift firsthand in 2012 when it added its Cantina Bell menu, a line of premium burritos and bowls that include as many as 10 ingredients. Other quick-service concepts are similarly marching into new territory as customers demand better, healthier, and more adventurous food options. With competition so intense, burger, sandwich, and chicken concepts are looking for ways to either grow beyond or build on top of burgers, sandwiches, and chicken, whether it’s through customizable menu options, updated recipes, or unusual ingredients. This could help explain the long average service times for each segment; burger concepts clocked in at 203.75 seconds with an average of 1.79 cars in the drive thru, bone-in chicken chains experienced 215.85-second service times with just one car on average in the lane, and sandwich brands brought up the rear with a 239.88-second mark and 2.2 cars in the stack (for comparison, the fastest brand in last year’s study, Wendy’s, enjoyed a 133.63-second speed-of-service time with an average of 1.78 vehicles in the line).

Perhaps more noteworthy, though, are the differences in speed-of-service times among the dayparts. Speed of service during the breakfast and snack dayparts, for example, is much faster compared with lunch, dinner, and late night, and the two dayparts are very similar in both time through the line and number of vehicles rolling through. Breakfast enjoyed an average speed of service of 174.88 seconds with 1.94 cars in the line, while the mid-afternoon snack came in at 173.39 seconds and 1.98 cars present.

“The piece that surprised me more than anything was the mid-afternoon snack,” Baker says. “It’s equally busy to the other dayparts and they’re just killing it on time. You would expect for lunch and breakfast, you would have your No. 1 best employees in place, shoes shined, ready to roll, and in the middle of the afternoon you relax and catch your breath. But I look at this and say, it’s just as busy in the middle of the day as it is for dinner or lunch or breakfast, and they are even faster.”

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