Fast-Food Drive-Thru Lead Times

fast food

Lead time, the total time you wait for a process to deliver the product or service you paid for, is perhaps the key process performance metric. For fast food chains, the time customers have to wait in line, whether at the counter or in the drive-thru, is a critical competitive factor. Bruce Horovitz wrote:

As if the fast-food industry doesn’t have enough headaches, now it’s got a new one: It’s getting too slow.

The amount of time that consumers are spending waiting in lines at fast-food drive-thru windows is getting longer, not shorter, mostly due to the growing complexity of new products that the major fast-food chains are selling.

This, according to the 2013 Drive-Thru Performance Study conducted for QSR magazine, a fast-food industry trade publication. The study also said that industry giant McDonald’s posted its slowest-ever drive-thru time in the 15-year history of the drive-thru study — requiring an average 189.5 seconds for the typical drive-thru customer to go from order to pickup. That’s roughly nine seconds longer than the industry average, reports the study conducted this summer by Insula Research.

The importance of the drive-thru business to the $299 billion fast-food industry cannot be overstated. Many major chains do 60 percent to 70 percent of their business at the drive-thru. That’s even nudged so-called fast-casual chains like Panera to move into the drive-thru arena.

The industry issue that’s slowing down service: menu bloat. Fast food’s ongoing market-share battle is forcing big chains to roll out more premium and more complex products. “The operational pressures to assemble those items are slowing down the drive-thru,” said Sam Oches, editor of QSR.

For example, Taco Bell told QSR that its Cantina Bell bowls sometimes have up to 12 ingredients — which are much more complex to assemble than, say, a Doritos Locos Taco.

There’s another factor at work, too: accuracy. “The one thing that angers a customer most is to not get the right food,” said Oches. “It’s possible to be too fast.”

Consumers get so upset when they find the wrong kind of burger — or the wrong toppings — in their bags, that many fast-food sellers are either slowing down the process or adding additional order-accuracy checks to ensure correct orders. Some chains are “doubling down” on order accuracy, said Oches.

“Customers will be patient if you give them hot, accurate orders,” said Oches.

Less Accurate

Order accuracy for drive-thru meals for the industry was at 87.2 percent this year vs. 88.8 percent last year. The chain ranking highest in accuracy: Chick-fil-A at 91.6 percent. The lowest was Burger King at 82.3 percent.

But Chick-fil-A customers paid for that industry-leading accuracy at the other end — they waited in the drive-thru line longer than anyone this year: 203.9 seconds, on average. By comparison, Wendy’s was the fastest drive-thru, at an average 133.6 seconds.

The 2013 Fast Food Drive Thru Study is a good example of how top-performing companies relentlessly compare key metrics to others.

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.”

Average Service Time


Order Accuracy


Customer Service


Service Attributes


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