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    The Drive-Thru Performance Study

  • Comparing performance among the industry’s dayparts and menu categories.

    Wendy’s has begun testing mobile ordering in stores, including in the drive thru, in select cities.

    As dayparts blur and customers increase their demand for more convenient and higher-quality food, the drive thru represents both a great opportunity and a potential pitfall for many restaurant operators.

    Mobile payment and ordering have started to creep into the drive thru, with brands like Starbucks and Wendy’s piloting their own models. At the same time, chains are reengineering the basics—namely, operations and customer service—to not only increase speed and accuracy, but also to improve the customer experience.

    But in an industry in which as much as 60–70 percent of business rolls through the outdoor lane, the risk of the drive thru leaving a negative impression on the customer experience is abundant. That’s why operators must constantly work to make the drive thru as efficient and successful as possible.

    To study the effectiveness of the drive thru, QSR has published the Drive-Thru Performance Study for nearly 20 years. Last year, we introduced a new format in which performance was measured across dayparts and menu categories (rather than among individual brands), and we’re continuing that model this year to compare the performance over last year and review trends among the major industry categories and meal times. One new change over last year is that, instead of researching performance at bone-in chicken concepts, we’ve studied the effectiveness of ethnic brands in the Mexican, Chinese, and Italian menu categories. (In addition, the mix of brands studied within the menu categories changed; see sidebar at end of the story.)

    Although drive thru has historically been the land of burgers and fries, Fazoli’s breaks the mold; the Lexington, Kentucky–based Italian brand has boasted a drive thru at most of its stores since the brand was founded in 1988. Now Fazoli’s is overhauling its drive thru, which CEO Carl Howard credits as being the fastest-growing part of the restaurant.

    “Our single biggest focus right now is improving our drive-thru accuracy, because once they leave and it’s not right, it’s a lot more difficult to recover those guests than someone who’s dining in,” Howard says. “You look at Starbucks and some of these other chains adding drive-thru components to their business; I think it shows that the public is demanding more convenience, and drive thru is one way to give them more convenience.”

    At the end of July, Fazoli’s rolled out a new initiative, “Drive Under 5,” at all company-owned stores. The initiative aimed to get the entire drive-thru experience under 5 minutes through several changes: The traditional checkered menuboard was replaced with an easier-to-read three-panel menuboard; larger POP merchandisers were placed to highlight limited-time offers; and the entire communications system, from headsets to speakers, was audited and repaired or replaced when necessary. The brand also rolled out new packaging and updated procedures to triple-check every order for accuracy.

    The decision seems especially prescient given that the ethnic menu category outperformed all others in terms of speed of service, accuracy, and customer service.

    Brian Baker is a member of the advisory board at Mystery Researchers, the Performance Study’s research partner, and a consultant who has overseen the Drive-Thru Study since its inception. He says it’s impressive how the ethnic category beat both the burger and sandwich categories across some of the major drive-thru metrics.

    “Since you have multiple areas where they seem to be outperforming the other categories, even though it’s not a statistically significant difference, I think that we could probably look at that and explore it a little more,” Baker says. “If they were barely the most accurate and everything else was comparable, my expectation would be that it’s nothing. But on all of these, they outperform the other categories.”

    Scott SirLouis, the vice president of operations at Fazoli’s who headed the “Drive Under 5” initiative, says one of the most significant changes was bringing all locations onto a standardized timing system. Stores that had an existing timer were retrofitted with new ones, while others received their first-ever timers. Through these timers, teams can measure their speed while a third-party data partner sends surveys to track order accuracy and customer satisfaction. SirLouis says that through these metrics, Fazoli’s is able to bring better training procedures into place and initiate contests that engage employees.

    “One of the things that really pushed us into this initiative is that we noticed that, for several quarters now, our drive-thru comp sales have exceeded our dining room comp sales,” SirLouis says.

    Although many limited-service concepts are building business during the morning and snack—both afternoon and late night—occasions, Fazoli’s finds its drive thru to be especially busy between 4 and 5 p.m., when consumers are picking up larger orders to take home for dinner, SirLouis says. He adds that during these hours, the dining room is much quieter.

    In the later dayparts, experts say, speed is less crucial than during the morning and lunchtime rushes, when customers are on their way to work or taking a brief break.

    Breakfast is especially abuzz across the limited-service sector. After years of waffling, McDonald’s finally decided to roll out an all-day breakfast; Chick-fil-A introduced its own specialty-grade coffee and a Greek Yogurt Parfait; and Taco Bell continued to raise the bar for innovative morning meals (Biscuit Taco with a side of Cap’n Crunch Delights, anyone?). According to The NPD Group, breakfast witnessed a 4 percent sales growth in the year ending May 2015, effectively beating out all other dayparts.

    Despite the booming popularity of breakfast, operators have been able to keep up with demand. The average service time—beginning when a customer places an order to when he or she drives away with it—was 183.38 seconds, or 30 seconds quicker than the next fastest daypart, which was lunch.

    Baker says he would have expected that consumers would feel rushed or complain that breakfast service was too slow, but survey respondents were overwhelmingly pleased with the morning daypart; 84 percent reported that the service was “about right,” 14.6 percent said it was slow, and only 1.4 percent found service to be rushed.