Special Report | October 2013 | By Sam Oches

The Drive-Thru Performance Study

It used to be that speed of service was the most important part of the drive thru. But times have changed.

Fast food drive thrus are slowing down as consumers demand premium menus.
Chick-fil-A averages a whopping 6.09 cars in its drive thru at any given time. chick-fil-a / Stanley Leary

Since the advent of the modern quick-service drive thru—some would say in the early 1970s, though the idea of a pick-up window has been around for much longer—operators have tinkered with the nuts and bolts to create a drive thru that is as fast, efficient, and pleasant as possible. Innovations throughout the years, from wireless headsets and order-confirmation boards to dual lanes and pre-sell signage, have created a better drive thru capable of handling the 60–70 percent of business that now loops the exterior of most quick-service restaurants.

With the Drive-Thru Performance Study, QSR—together with Columbus, Ohio–based Insula Research, which co-owns the proprietary report—has monitored the innovations and success of quick-serve drive thrus for the last 15 years. And since 2011, we’ve pared down the industry to a benchmark group, a set of six permanent brands—Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Krystal, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s—along with one annually rotating brand—this year’s being Taco John’s—that regularly perform best in the drive-thru arena, to get a better idea of what companies can aspire to in the future.

Some trends have emerged from the benchmark group that signal an evolving drive-thru industry. Accuracy, for example, has topped out around 90 percent for most brands. Cleanliness and favorable exteriors are clearly a major investment in the industry. And order-confirmation boards (OCB) have become a preferred tool among brands not named Chick-fil-A.

This year, one additional thing became clear: Speed of service, it seems, may never be the same in quick-service drive thrus, especially among the benchmark group. McDonald’s experienced its slowest average speed of service in the history of the Drive-Thru Study, at 189.49 seconds; Chick-fil-A’s speed (203.88 seconds) was its slowest showing since 1998, Krystal’s (217.89) since 1999. Burger King was the only brand that improved speed of service over last year.

But that’s not to say the decline in speed is a bad thing. Times, of course, are changing. Food isn’t so simple anymore. Burgers and fries have become burrito bowls and customizable salad kits.

“We knew going into this year’s Study that speed-of-service times seemed to have plateaued over the last few years, but we did not really expect to see the nearly across-the-board increases in service times that were apparent,” says Brian Baker, president of Insula Research. “One explanation for longer service times could be a more complex menu for operators to deal with, as many restaurants have introduced more healthy options that in some cases could take longer to prepare.”

Baker says slower service times can also be attributed to busier drive-thru lanes. Whether it’s due to increased overall interest in the quick-service industry or a shifting balance of traffic from the dining room to the drive thru, Baker says, the average number of vehicles in line during researchers’ trips through the drive thru was up over 2012. “The number of other vehicles in line for service is critical when assessing service speeds because it has such a dramatic impact on a restaurant’s ability to process any given customer,” he says.

That could help explain Chick-fil-A’s speed-of-service marks. The chicken chain had, on average, more than six cars in the drive-thru queue, far and away the most among the benchmark group and nearly a full vehicle more than the brand witnessed last year.

Mark Moraitakis, Chick-fil-A’s director of hospitality and service design, says the company is investing more in dual-lane drive thrus to better handle capacity issues. But he adds that it’s not just Chick-fil-A’s bumper-to-bumper drive-thru lanes that are slowing things down; the move toward more specialty sandwiches, he says, is also adding seconds to service time. And while Chick-fil-A does not willingly sacrifice speed of service to improve the broader drive-thru experience, he says, the company is rethinking the trip around the restaurant to enhance components that might, in turn, streamline the entire process.

“We can help team members be more operationally efficient; we also help them be more hospitable and show care and concern for the customer. So we’re trying to minimize any barriers that they might have so they can maximize their ability to connect with guests in a personal way,” Moraitakis says. “When you have Chick-fil-A team members who are making eye contact with you and listening to you, even through a speaker box, they’re more attentive, they’re more focused, they’re more likely to get it right … and they’re also more likely to get it out with much more grace and efficiency.”

Representatives from other benchmark brands also acknowledge that operational complexities might be pumping the brakes in the drive thru. But like Moraitakis and Chick-fil-A, they are rethinking the approach to speed as products evolve and the consumer experience becomes a more crucial component to drive-thru success.

Rob Savage, chief operations officer at Taco Bell, says the company is not trying too hard to speed up the drive thru because customers haven’t been complaining about its existing service time.

“You can get really fast but ruin the overall experience, because now you’re not friendly and now you’re not taking the time to guarantee accuracy or make sure the products have been built the way you want them to be built,” Savage says. “So there’s a careful balance in there that we have to continually look at through our testing process, through our food innovation labs, to make sure that the packaging we’re providing, the product builds, the tools we give, the training we give, is such that it will support our current speed targets but allow us to continue to improve on our experience, on our accuracy, on our friendliness.”

Of course, speed is still a top priority at benchmark brands, and they continue to design systems and procedures accordingly. For example, Wendy’s spokesman Denny Lynch says the company uses a separate grill and sandwich station in the drive thru to maintain its industry-best speeds, and it trains and cross-trains employees repeatedly to ensure the fastest speeds. Taco John’s, meanwhile, is revisiting its drive-thru layout to improve little things here and there that might impede the ability to service the drive thru quickly.

“We’re kind of going back to the basics and just looking at how we shave off seconds in our kitchens and make it more efficient for our employees, because they’re kind of taking too many steps,” says Shawn Eby, vice president of operations at Taco John’s. “Every little step adds an extra second, and that speed of service makes it longer and longer.”



The drive-thru times are false. At a few different fast food places, I've watched clerks and managers drive their cars through the drive-thru multiple times, only stopping for a couple of seconds at the window. This skews the numbers in their favor and looks good on paper. You can't believe anything anymore. Honesty and integrity are in short supply and not often rewarded.

McDonalds is the worst in my opinion in both speed and quality. What I don't get about them is that many times there are a dozen employees milling around in their kitchen and behind the counter with only a few customers yet the orders are consistently slow, cold and often wrong. Don't even think about getting a "thank you" from their ill-trained employees. I now only go there when there is nothing else or if the person I'm traveling with insists. I despise McDonalds.

There are some great McDonald's in the world. There are I believe 14000 in just USA. more people visit them than the rest of QSR put together. I have hardly ever had any problems with them being nice. But then I goo out of my way yo be polite to them. Some people treats them with such disrespect and then what do they expect.My daughter worked there and she would come home and would ash why some of the customers are so horrible to them. She would say only if the could see how hard the staff work to serve them. Just saying..

Its not that easy to work in the kitchen, if your were in their shoes you will know how it feel! not easy! No one in this world is perfect, but some few people are !

Del taco workers are the best, google search "del taco conversation" #1 youtube result, she was willing and happy :) deff my favorite

Some Del taco "California " like Los Angeles or Orange county have bad customer service! Sometime they don't have dinner room clean or restroom !

um.....I run a qsr and having a physical car at the window does not affect service times at all. we dont cheat the times, but if we wanted to we would just ring up an order and promo it to clear it from the register. that would give it a "fast" time on the report. there doesn't need to be an actual car there. the recorded time is based solely on when the order is rang up, and when it gets cleared off the monitor. Having a car at the window doesn't affect it at all.

I go to various drive-thru restaurants four or five times per week. The particular store/crew seems to make more difference than the brand. By and large they are all friendly, fast, and accurate.

I used to be a drivethru cashier at a McDonalds just north of Charlotte. Most of the time, esp. atbreakfast, the line never came to a full stop. If it did, horns would blow.Then came a morediverse menu and cell phones. The avg. cell phone holder did not have money in handand was often oblivious that they needed to pay for their order. I would have been firedback then if a customer spent 3 minutes at the drivethru. In that "era" we also had timeto relate to a repeat customer by name and build rapport. In my opinion, McDonalds cansimplify the menu to under 6 items but as long as a customer is on a cellphone, the waitwill not measurably be reduced.

Some McDonalds Don't have good customers service, but some McDonalds have GOOD CUSTOMERS SERVICE (:. But when I'm about to receive my order I always ask for the manger and ill give them my feed back how was my service. All depends who is charge of their shift, how they train there employees. How to give good customer service. ONE the that I hate when your done making order , they always say "ANYTHING ELSE " !!!!!!!!! They should offer you Apple pie, sundae or cookies (: That all I have to say .

What's MOST amazing about this article -- and even more so, about the fact that a regular study is done -- is that the SLOW times amount to a matter of MINUTES! Less than FIVE MINUTES! And yet, people -- few, if any, of them brain surgeons or even fire fighters -- complain about SLOW SERVICE. Which drives the hurryhurryhurry mentality that created the new, 21st century "drive-thru" wherein most people are asked to pull up and park while the fast food place finishes the order. This insane -- I'm in a hurry (though I may not know why) -- attitude is seen in the way people drive, treat each other (someone below, likely NOT a brain surgeon with a life on his or her hands, complained about courtesy at drive-through windows) 'cause they don't have time to stop and smell roses, much less be polite -- is only getting worse in our tech-heavy society. Drive-through service -- from fast food restaurants to liquor to marriages -- are a symptom of a society that is so self-involved it has forgotten the most important things in life.Hint: the "drive-thru" time at your local fast food restaurant ain't one of them.Take the time to pick up FASTER by James Gleick and educate yourselves (ya crazy, hurry up and wait maroons)!


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