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    The Drive-Thru Performance Study

  • How does your brand stack up against the drive-thru competition?

    El Pollo Loco
    El Pollo Loco employees tell customers what is in every bag they hand them to improve order accuracy in the drive thru.

    The busyness and efficiency of the snack daypart reflect a growing trend across the limited-service restaurant industry in which more customers are making purchases outside of the three traditional meal times, either for dieting purposes or as a way to fuel slow times in their workday. It’s a trend that has forced operators to retool their systems to accommodate new traffic patterns and customer demands.

    “As you look at happy hour in our business, which is really growing our afternoon daypart, we’ve had to staff up and create new opportunities for employees in the afternoon that maybe weren’t there, that were a downtime in the past,” Grams says. “With breakfast, obviously, the expansion of hours there has created new jobs in the morning. We’ve done a tremendous job over the years of having a very strong late-night business. So now we’re really trying to take advantage of that 24-hour footprint to make sure we take advantage of dayparts where we can grow.”

    Taco Bell added a national breakfast menu in March, making waves with items like the Waffle Taco and the A.M. Crunchwrap. The move launched a national conversation on the morning meal, leading to increased attention from quick-service brands on their breakfast offerings. The drive thru perhaps stands to bear the brunt of breakfast’s newfound popularity, as purchases are often made in the middle of the morning commute to work.

    Kenneth Avery is chief operating officer at Bojangles’, a brand that was built on the backs of biscuits and other Southern breakfast staples, and that sees about 40 percent of its business visit during the morning hours. He says breakfast is a sacred time, one that requires the brand to be on its best behavior.

    “Breakfast is one of those habits where you go to the same place four or five times each week because you’re either on your way to work or you’ve got your morning routine, and you go to some place you can count on or rely on,” Avery says. “So at breakfast, I think our methodology is … about us delivering that quality in a way that does not interfere with what their plans are, either slowing them down or giving them reason to not be happy with us. Once you move to lunch or dinner, it really becomes much different.”

    Dinner experienced the slowest drive-thru time, an average of 225.59 seconds, among the dayparts. Baker says this is likely because dinner meals are often more complex than the other dayparts—say, a bucket of chicken or sandwiches for the whole family.

    “What makes dinner even more of a sore spot, is if you look at the average number of vehicles in line, it’s also the slower period,” he says, noting the daypart’s average of 1.19 cars in the line. “But if the orders are more complex and larger, the number of vehicles in line doesn’t really reflect what they’re dealing with internally.”

    John Cappasola, chief brand officer for Del Taco, confirms Baker’s suspicions, noting that customers experience the brand in different ways during different dayparts.

    “The biggest difference really lies in the size and complexity of the orders,” he says. “I’d say a typical drive-thru order at lunch is one or two of our popular meal options, with fries and drinks, sometimes dessert. At dinner, the orders are definitely larger, most likely feeding the family or a group of friends—lots of food, lots of variety. Effectively preparing for each of our peak dayparts has been a particular focus area for us over the past year.”

    Various strategies have been employed by quick-service brands to improve drive-thru speed of service, and the Study’s data show these strategies are inconsistent in their benefits. For example, pre-sell menuboards that are typically employed to streamline the customer order don’t always make speed of service faster; only one menu category and two dayparts showed faster times when a pre-sell board was present. Meanwhile, brands that have employed three customer touch points instead of two—something that seemed less likely in the last few years as operators focused on smaller, cheaper real estate—have reason to believe they are on the right track, as average speed-of-service times are faster when three stations are in operation (195.71 seconds) than two (204.53 seconds).

    Marcia Keaney, U.S. operations manager for McDonald’s, says in an email that the brand views more customer touch points in the drive thru as a way to limit the number of possible mistakes. “Our focus is on efficiency, so, if we take down the order accurately and deliver a quality product, the line keeps moving,” she says. “It’s about going slow to go fast.”

    Like many other quick-service concepts, Bojangles’ has used line busters—employees stationed outside with a mobile order-taker—to relieve some of the pressure in the drive-thru lane. But Avery says that approach is not one that the brand plans to pursue in a big way moving into the future.

    “Where we can, all new stores will have two windows. … We have found that it becomes more difficult to put somebody outside,” Avery says. “Believe it or not, customers give you credit for trying to do the right thing and get you through faster, but ... at least from the feedback we’ve received from customers, they don’t want you to put employees out there.” He adds that the oppressive heat in the Southeast, Bojangles’ core market, is a deterrent to the line-buster strategy, and that customers have expressed concern over employees being asked to sweat out the rush hours outside.

    If speed of service has taken a back seat in the drive-thru experience, accuracy is at the steering wheel. All operators interviewed for this story claim accuracy to be the most important component of the drive-thru experience, a piece that can sully an otherwise perfect drive-thru order. And while these operators say the complexities of premium menu items are also putting pressures on order accuracy, the numbers show that execution is firing on all cylinders; 87.2 percent of the orders from the daypart brands and 86.6 percent of those for the menu-category audits were accurate.

    There’s no magic bullet for making sure an order is accurate in the drive-thru lane. Some brands use an order confirmation board (OCB), but the data suggests it’s not yet a widespread strategy; while 90.1 percent of burger joints employed an OCB, only 22.1 percent of chicken chains and 10.6 percent of sandwich concepts did the same.

    For some companies, keeping a constant flow of communication between the employee and the customer is what helps protect the accuracy of the orders.