In late January, a drive-thru clinic opened in the suburban town of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Local hospitals hoped to administer early shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, but soon after, the computer system malfunctioned, leaving hundreds of people idling in their cars for hours.
Word got back to Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie. His response? Pick up the phone and call the manager of a local fast-food restaurant.
It was no great mystery at this point that quick-service chains had retrenched their expertise in one of the country’s true mainstays. Drive-thru restaurant visits increased 26 percent in the April, May, and June quarter of 2020 and represented 42 percent of all traffic, according to The NPD Group. By December, drive-thru lanes mixed 44 percent of off-premises orders industry-wide. As much buzz as virtual brands, delivery, curbside, and other upstart outlets received last year, it was the classic that stood tallest. Although this was hardly your parents' drive-thru. Contactless tech, artificial intelligence, multiple lane setups—all sprung up in the wake of COVID’s disruption. While many fast-food chains welcomed 70 percent of sales via drive-thru before coronavirus, the number jolted well above 90 percent overnight. The effort to survive pandemic conditions fast became a crash course in operations. Speed of service. Hospitality. Employee and guest safety. The quick-service industry’s greatest differentiator had to be its best one, too. After all, it might be the only person-to-person interaction somebody had that entire day in lockdown conditions. And it might be the only job available for industry workers hoping to navigate economic uncertainty.
What also shouldn’t surprise anybody is who Mayor Haynie called. He dialed up Jerry Walkowiak, the manager of a nearby Chick-fil-A. Walkowiak looked things over and made a quick assessment. The pop-up clinic had only one person checking arrivals in.
Walkowiak gathered volunteers and reduced the wait to 15 minutes. More than 1,000 people received the COVID vaccine that day. Haynie asked Walkowiak to return in February for the second round of shots.
Khalilah Cooper, Chick-fil-A’s senior director of service and hospitality, heard similar stories throughout the past 18 months, ever since the brand shut its dining rooms in mid-March 2020. The ability for Chick-fil-A to convey its strengths, especially concerning hospitality, became paramount.
“We focused on safe service first,” she says, “and then that service excellence piece and our commitment to hospitality has been unwavering.”
There were headline grabbers like Walkowiak’s example, but also small efforts such as employees writing notes on customers’ bags. A store in Tucson, Arizona, created an outdoor handwashing station that other units soon adopted. Chick-fil-A used bins to collect cash, and deployed mobile credit card readers for employees walking the line to accept contactless payment.
One of the most noticeable efforts, though, was Chick-fil-A’s near-mythical ability to usher through endless lines of cars.
As people on social media professed, Chick-fil-A’s long lines hardly dissuaded the masses.
The reason speaks to something broader that flashed during COVID, and illustrates how the definition of “speed of service” isn’t so cut-and-dry in today’s drive-thru, and likely won’t be moving forward.
“That level of trust,” Cooper says. “I have to trust that this experience is going to be a good one for me to get into this line.”
As the 2021 QSR magazine Drive Thru Study showed, by the numbers, Chick-fil-A was not the speediest chain during COVID. It trailed the pack at 541 seconds. The average was 346 seconds, with Taco Bell leading the charge at 268 seconds.
But you could argue nobody achieved what Cooper suggested better or stood out more, making Chick-fil-A QSR magazine’s Drive-Thru Restaurant of the Year for 2021.