Special Report | October 2013 | By Sam Oches

The Drive-Thru Performance Study

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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
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Moraitakis says this same philosophy encourages Chick-fil-A crewmembers to design the drive-thru experience around each customer. He says employees are trained to listen for clues in each customer’s voice; if she sounds rushed and knows precisely what she wants, she’s probably in a hurry and should be accommodated. If the customer sounds like he’s in a playful mood, the crew is given the license to be playful back. And if it’s a familiar voice, employees are encouraged to recognize the regulars.

That customer-service component has become a well-known signature at Chick-fil-A, and other benchmark brands are trying to replicate the model to similarly boost the overall drive-thru experience.

At Taco John’s, for example, a major focus in the coming year is on the guest interaction in the drive thru, Gianguzzo says. “We don’t want our guests to feel rushed, but we want to enhance their meal. So if there is a suggestive selling opportunity to complete a meal, we obviously want to do that,” he says. “At the same time, we don’t want to try to sell them 10 things either. All of a sudden we sound like a used car salesman trying to add on everything. So we want that experience to be pleasant, we want it to be genuine. We don’t want [employees] to sound like a robot where they’re saying the same thing to every single guest. And we want those pleasantries.” (For more on customer service in the drive thru, click here.)

Along with improved customer service, menuboards and signage in the drive-thru lane can help streamline the process by making the purchase decision easier for customers, the benchmark brands say. Wendy’s, for one, is working in cleaner, better-organized menuboards with more pictures as part of its broader store remodeling, Lynch says.

Various other drive-thru strategies are being tested and employed at quick serves across the country: digital menuboards, dual drive-thru lanes, remote order takers during rush. And operators continue to keep one eye on the future as they roll out affordable and effective technologies.

“I think you’re going to see more restaurant chains experimenting with mobile payments off your mobile device,” Lynch says. “Conceivably, you could load up your favorite meal into your app and when you get to the restaurant at the order station, you just flash your app and all of a sudden, boom, your order is delivered.”

How that will evolve speed of service in the drive thru remains to be seen.



The 2013 QSR Drive-Thru Performance Study was produced and conducted by Insula Research and QSR magazine. This research was supported by sponsors Archon Development (Prophet), Unistructures Inc., R.F. Technologies Inc., and Delphi Display Systems.

The primary objective for this study was to determine the leading restaurant chains in several categories of drive-thru operation. Categories measured in the study include but are not limited to: service time, order accuracy, suggestive sell incidence, exterior appearance, speaker clarity, menuboard appearance, and availability of order-confirmation boards.

Data for the study was collected during the months of April, May, June, and July 2013. Restaurants were visited between the lunch hours of 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., and between the dinner hours of 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Any given restaurant could be visited a maximum of twice for this research—once during the lunch period and again during the dinner period. A total of 1,855 service times were collected based on a controlled order of main item, side item, and beverage, and another 1,829 were collected based on a randomly selected vehicle that entered the line while the researcher was on site (note: the published tables only reflect the researchers’ own journey through the drive thru). The study included assessments from restaurants in 40 different states, and included seven different quick-service restaurant chains. Breakdown of the total number of researched units per brand are as follows: 299 Burger King units, 299 Chick-fil-A units, 200 Krystal units, 317 McDonald’s units, 308 Taco Bell units, 107 Taco John’s units, and 325 Wendy’s units.

Speed was measured in two different time segments. Those segments were: wait time, or the time from when the test vehicle enters the line to when the vehicle stops at the order station (speaker); and service time, or the time from when the vehicle stops at the order station to when the entire order is received, including change.

Accuracy percentages were based on the percentage of orders that were received by researchers exactly as placed. The objective was to determine which chain was most accurate. During each visit, the researcher ordered a main item, a side item, and a drink. One special request was made for each order. For example, a field researcher could order a fountain drink with no ice. After receiving the order, all food and drink items were checked for complete accuracy. Any food or drink item received that was not exactly as ordered was listed as inaccurate. Similarly, orders were considered inaccurate if a requested condiment was not received, if the order failed to contain at least one napkin or one straw, or if the cashier gave incorrect change.

A sample size was selected for each chain based on the total number of drive-thru units each chain operates. Analysis was performed to set sample sizes in such a manner as to result in approximately the same margin of error for each chain included in the study.