In the Fast Lane

Sure, mobile ordering, apps, third-party delivery, kiosks, and other digital innovations are all the rage in quick service. But no matter how you spin it, the drive thru is still king for many brands. Take Dunkin’ Donuts for example. The chain said 75 percent of its new restaurants would feature a drive-thru lane moving forward. On average, the chain’s locations with a drive thru boast 40 percent higher sales volume throughout the system. However, with that in mind, it’s not just about finding real estate that can host the setup. Brands are under more pressure than ever to get it right. And perhaps top-of-mind for most consumers when ordering in their car: Speed. These are the 11 fastest drive-thru operations in America, as defined by QSR’s annual Drive-Thru study (

Note: The data was collected and tabulated by SeeLevel HX. The study included 15 chains and data from 2,011 visits. Daypart analysis was based on the time of day of the visit—breakfast (5–9 a.m.), mid morning (9–11:30 a.m.), lunch (11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.), late afternoon (1:30–4 p.m.), and dinner (4–7 p.m.). The distribution of visits mirrored revenue by daypart.

Image credits:Chick-fil-A

1. Raising Cane’s

Average time (in seconds): 168.23

Raising Cane’s is one of those cult-like chains America is famous for, kind of in the mold of In-N-Out Burger and White Castle. There are more than 360 locations nationwide and the brand is readying for its Chicago debut March 6 near Loyola University’s Rogers Park campus. Fans of the brand even have a name for themselves: “Caniacs.” One thing that undoubtedly helps Raising Cane’s drive-thru performance is its straightforward menu. Chicken fingers. Crinkle-cut fries. Coleslaw. Cane’s Sauce. Texas Toast. Drinks. Just because it’s uncomplicated, though, doesn’t mean the chain doesn’t deserve credit. In addition to being the fastest brand tested, Raising Cane’s also came in as the most accurate at 97.3 percent, besting McDonald’s (93.90) by a solid clip.

Image credits:flickr: Bill Roehl

2. Dunkin’ Donuts

Average time (in seconds): 173.85

We’ve already touched on how important the drive thru is to Dunkin’ Donuts. To further this point, the brand’s next-generation store doesn’t just feature a drive thru, but a double drive-thru with one lane dedicated to mobile orders and its Perks loyalty members. The first iteration, in Quincy, Massachusetts, claimed to be the first example of this innovation in America. If I had to guess, it won’t be the last. Dunkin’s morning business was stellar in 2017 and now accounts for about 60 percent of systemwide sales. Of course speed is part of this. Because if there’s one time of day people aren’t going to be lauded for their patience, it’s in the a.m. Coffee holds no prisoners.

Image credits:Dunkin’ Donuts

3. Wendy’s

Average time (in seconds): 180.05

The burger giant is an annual top performer in QSR’s speed test. In 2016, Wendy’s was actually No. 1 at 169.11. It’s pretty much impossible to figure out what accounted for that 10 second or so difference. The gap seems insignificant, though. Given the sheer amount of stores and the growth, and the fact Wendy’s is also posting accuracy scores of 89.7 percent, the company’s position as a drive-thru stalwart is safe. Deepak Ajmani, the company’s vice president of restaurant services, operations, said it’s all about employees. “First off, it’s essential that each of our restaurants is properly staffed for day-to-day business. When we are properly staffed with trained employees, productivity comes naturally. Secondly, we pride ourselves on running our restaurants efficiently, which includes everything from crewmember scheduling and training to opening and closing procedures. Excellent execution really is the foundation for each and every restaurant’s success, and is the recipe for long-term growth.”

Image credits:Wendy’s

4. Burger King

Average time (in seconds): 189.48

In many ways, 2017 was a really promising one for BK. The Restaurant Brands International flagship posted impressive comparable same-store sales growth of 4.6 percent in the fourth quarter versus the prior-year period. The eye-opening statistic to me: 5.1 percent growth in the U.S. compared to just 1.8 percent in 2016. That’s pretty interesting when you consider what the fast-food dynamic looks like today in America. Burger King is right in the heart of the quick-service value and convenience wars right now and, clearly, thriving. What’s worth mentioning as well is the fact that Burger King is lagging behind competitors such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s when it comes to tech. That won’t last long. And when the shift comes? That could be one of the key stories of 2018.

Image credits:flickr: Mike Mozart

5. Tim Hortons

Average time (in seconds): 202.66

I think RBI is finding Tim Hortons to be a bit of an enigma in the U.S. Where exactly does it slide in? The chain is kind of somewhere between Starbucks and Panera in offerings, from a certain view perhaps, and really lacking the same kind of brand strength it enjoys in Canada. All that said: Tim Hortons is a solid product run by one of the best companies in foodservice. And when it comes to the drive thru, not surprising at all to see the chain get it done. Tim Hortons posted comparable same-store sales declines of 0.1 percent in fiscal 2017, but CEO Daniel Schwartz said the chain made some progress, especially on the digital front. The company launched its mobile app and introduced an espresso-based beverage platform in Canada and the U.S. It’s definitely a chain to keep an eye on moving forward.

Image credits:flickr: MSVG

6. Taco Bell

Average time (in seconds): 212.71

Want proof the YUM! Brands chain takes the drive thru seriously? Chief operations and development officer Mike Grams (recently expanded title), said one of the keys to Taco Bell’s success is “to create and reinforce a culture around speed, which includes recognizing great performers and measuring actual throughput.” A lot of this is just about setting expectations. Grams said Taco Bell makes sure all of its employees understand their role in the multi-step process of the drive thru. After that it’s about standardizing product builds to create a repeatable process. This is especially important considering Taco Bell rolls out LTOs (often crazy ones) every five to eight weeks or so. Not just fast, Taco Bell also came in at 90.4 percent in the accuracy meter.

Image credits:Taco Bell

7. Zaxby’s

Average time (in seconds): 212.85

One thing that’s undeniable about concepts that specialize in chicken fingers is the reality that chicken travels. Chicken sandwiches not as much, but put a few tenders in a box with coleslaw and there’s really no speed bump capable of ruining it. And as someone who used to eat in my car a lot while driving, chicken fingers are about as good as it gets from a mobile consumption standpoint (not that I’m recommending that to anyone). Zaxby’s also scored high on accuracy at 90.70 percent. Employees said “thank you” 84 percent of the time as well. According to the data, however, Zaxby’s can improve when it comes to “pleasant demeanor,” ranking near the bottom half at 74.50 percent.

Image credits:Zaxby’s

8. KFC

Average time (in seconds): 230.98

Picking up a bucket at the drive thru is about as American as it gets. KFC’s off-beat marketing in recent years has really shifted it back into the spotlight. It kind of reminds me of Taco Bell in the sense that things like Colonel Sanders jewelry and fried-chicken scented Valentine’s Day cards are lifestyle changes as much as they are brand ones. The eccentric vibe of KFC and Taco Bell is a smart marketing stance in respect to younger consumers. The older generation are loyal guests (especially at the drive thru) simply because KFC has been part of their dining habits for decades. Shifting to the future is another story, and KFC is getting there one innovative pitch at a time. In the fourth quarter, YUM! announced its $200 million stake with GrubHub and plan to deliver KFC and Taco Bell at thousands of restaurants. This should help KFC compete in one of the most challenging sectors in the business. The chain’s fourth-quarter same-store sales declined 1 percent in the U.S., year-over-year, although they were up 1 percent for fiscal 2017. KFC opened 539 new international restaurants in the quarter and 1,247 in 84 countries for the year, including 1,042 in emerging markets.

Image credits:flickr: Mike Mozart

9. McDonald’s

Average time (in seconds): 239.03

Not surprisingly, McDonald’s drive-thru future is digital, like most things right now for the top earner in the game. The chain reported accuracy of 93.9 percent, which is pretty remarkable considering its size. Jim Fox, the vice president of global operations, had this to say: “We continue to build multiple-order-point drive thrus to improve speed and capacity and enable more orders. Our drive thrus are only as fast as we are able to prepare and serve our great food and drinks, so being able to take more than one order at a time gets customers’ orders started more quickly.” And that speed and accuracy equation goes hand-in-hand. “Speed is also greatly influenced by accuracy, so leveraging the latest digital technology for enhanced order taking is another way to impact speed of service. Digital headsets, menuboards, and preview boards are all important pieces to ensuring accuracy and improving the drive-thru experience.” McDonald’s may not have to get it right the first time to keep its customers coming back, like some chains, but it definitely doesn’t hurt. Expect to see more innovation, more mobile ordering, and more curbside moving forward.

Image credits:McDonald’s

10. Arby’s

Average time (in seconds): 244.37

Arby’s, the restaurant empire. Expect to say that soon enough after the company’s recent acquisition of Buffalo Wild Wings. The parent, now known as Inspire Brands, is apparently not anywhere near done scooping up major names. Hard to say who will be next, but we’ll all be waiting and watching. In regards to the drive thru, Arby’s is a perennial leader. The company added 90.5 percent accuracy to its performance this year. Chief operating officer John Bowie said the key is having a balanced approach to the business. “Our ‘Fast Crafted’ positioning is about unique, meaty sandwiches that are made to order and just for you,” he said. “But it’s also about the total experience. At so many drive thrus, the focus is almost entirely on speed, as it’s the most tangible and measureable. Our growth and our success over the last several years has been the product of our high-quality food, friendly service, accurate orders, and respectfully urgent speed—and that goes for both dine-in and drive thru.” Bowie said the moment of truth at the drive thru is clear communication with validation and agreement on what was ordered. “High-definition headsets and drive-thru speakers make a significant difference in this important first step. Validating the completed order either verbally or visually is also crucial,” he said.

Image credits:Arby’s

11. Chick-fil-A

Average time (in seconds): 251.04

You could argue that Chick-fil-A’s true drive-thru strength is not in its speed of service. Firstly, the brand’s accuracy came in at 93.4 percent. More vividly, its customer service is off the charts. Saying “please?” No. 1 at 91.80 percent. Smiling? No. 1 at 84.70 percent. Saying “Thank you?” No. 1 at 93.40 percent. This probably doesn’t surprise anybody, which is exactly why Chick-fil-A keeps winning. The standard for customer service and friendliness is legendary, and one of the key reasons the brand is so successful, leading the fast-food nation with average-unit volumes approaching $4.5 million, despite being closed on Sundays. “Speed and accuracy are a big focus in the drive thru, but our people are really our secret recipe. We know it’s important to our guests that our team members can be nice and friendly in the drive thru while also being quick and accurate. Eye contact, smiling, and good hospitality can go a long way in the drive thru,” said Elizabeth Dixon, manager of hospitality.

Image credits:Chick-fil-A
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