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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.

    “We do individually tell them what we’re handing them, versus just handing them a lot of bags, because the accuracy factor when they drive off is a lot more important than what the five-second pre-sell might have gained,” says Kay Bogeajis, chief operating officer for El Pollo Loco.

    But communication isn’t just helping improve accuracy in the drive thru. It’s also helping quick-service operators enhance the overall drive-thru experience, which they say is just as important as speed of service and accuracy.

    “If we do know that we’ve taken too long because maybe a car took longer than our average, then we tell the next car why,” Bogeajis says. “I think people just want to know that we’re aware of them as a customer. So the communication piece, for us, has improved our overall scores in terms of how people feel about us.”

    In the last few years of the Drive-Thru Performance Study, customer service has been one of the glaring sore spots for several chains, an obvious opportunity for brands to focus their efforts in improving the drive thru. This year, data shows that this remains the case, especially for certain menu categories and dayparts. Whereas the first four dayparts offered very friendly service around 30 percent of the time, the late-night daypart fell far behind at 12.3 percent. And while burger and chicken joints provided very friendly service around 20 percent of the time, sandwich concepts ran away with top service marks, nearly 40 percent of surveyed units being very friendly.

    “One component that we focus a great deal of time on is making sure that every one of our team members is trained, trusted, and empowered to deliver the Arby’s experience,” says Rick Gestring, vice president of operations at sandwich chain Arby’s. “It can’t just be a quick exchange or a transaction; it has to be an uplifting experience as well. So we spend a great deal of time training and helping to guide our folks to bring to life the brand purpose in the drive-thru experience. It may be as quick as just a quick smile, a ‘drive safe,’ a ‘hope you’re having a good day,’ an opportunity to deliver upon the brand purpose in the drive thru.”

    Taco Bell’s Grams says great customer service in the drive thru begins with employees who are comfortable with the menu and system. He points to the breakfast rollout earlier this year as an example of a major brand initiative that could have ruined the customer experience if executed hastily. The company used a strategic approach to the rollout that was similar to its other new product launches: It kept the initial breakfast menu small so it wouldn’t be overwhelming, gave stores several weeks’ notice before the menu’s debut, and issued a playbook that offered a blow-by-blow look at how to execute the menu.

    “That playbook was really about creating routine so that the habits and behaviors were formed inside the restaurants before launch, so people felt comfortable,” Grams says. “It didn’t feel new when we opened the doors at 6 o’clock in the morning and started serving breakfast. They were comfortable; there was a lot of practice to give people time before we actually started selling to get them comfortable.”

    Where do fast-food operators go from here? To the layman, a drive thru is a simple operation, one void of several consumer touch points and innovations that might be possible in the dining room. But if you believe operators interviewed for this story, the quick-service restaurant industry is on the precipice of a whole new way to approach the drive-thru operation. Mobile ordering, they say, will change speed, accuracy, customer service—everything.

    Just look at Dunkin’ Donuts, which rolled out a mobile-ordering app in 2012 that has already showed marked improvements in the drive thru.

    “By launching the Dunkin’ App and offering mobile payments, we created an entirely new level of speed and convenience that will further distinguish our brand to current and new customers throughout the country,” says Michelle King, spokeswoman for Dunkin’ Donuts, in an email.

    Grams says Taco Bell is exploring ways to leverage mobile’s popularity, and hints that a mobile solution could be making its debut in the near future.

    “What we learned long ago was that the biggest pain point in the drive-thru experience is actually placing the order,” he says. “The stress of finding it on the menuboard or remembering what your friend told you that they wanted from Taco Bell is a huge piece to the consumer that we can relieve with mobile ordering. So our ability to get that out to market and have consumers go through our drive thru, place their order in advance, and simply roll through and pick it up is pretty cool. … Mobile will change drive thru. No doubt.”




    To get a better read on how the drive-thru competition stacks up in individual dayparts and menu categories, we expanded the study this year to 23 brands. Note that the brands audited for the menu categories were researched during the lunch and dinner dayparts.


    BURGER: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.

    CHICKEN: KFC, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Church’s Chicken, Bojangles’, El Pollo Loco

    SANDWICH: Subway, Panera Bread, Arby’s, Chick-fil-A, Jimmy John’s, Steak Escape, Schlotzsky’s Deli


    BREAKFAST: Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Bojangles’, Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr., Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Dunkin’ Donuts, Tim Hortons, Krystal

    AFTERNOON SNACK: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Taco Bell

    LATE NIGHT: Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Del Taco, Jack in the Box



    Data for the 2014 QSR Drive-Thru Performance Study was collected and tabulated by Insula Research, a Mystery Researchers company. The Study included 23 different chains and included data from 2,188 different visits at 1,606 different restaurants. In all cases where the same restaurant was visited more than once, it was done so during different dayparts. All data was collected during the months of June, July, and August 2014.

    For the 2014 Study, a new format was introduced. Restaurants were segmented by menu; burger (McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Hardee’s, and Carl’s Jr), chicken on the bone (KFC, Popeyes, Church’s Chicken, Bojangles’, and El Pollo Loco), and sandwich (Chick-fil-A, Arby’s, Schlotzsky’s Deli, Subway, Panera Bread, Steak Escape, and Jimmy John’s). Additional chains (to those listed above) were also included for a daypart analysis, which examines differences based on time of day of the visit—breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, and late night. Sample sizes for each segment included at least 300 different visits.

    Upon each visit a trained data collection specialist 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. Additional data collected by each researcher included but was not limited to: order accuracy, drive thru and exterior appearance, speaker clarity, and customer service.