Fast Food Drive-Thru Trend: Slower Service

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It’s not your imagination: Service in the fast-food drive-thru lane really has been getting slower. For consumers and restaurant chains alike, that may not be a bad thing.

QSR magazine (short for “quick service restaurant”) has been surveying the speed, accuracy, and quality of fast-food drive-thru service for 15 years, and the results of this year’s just-released study bring to light the undeniable fast that the drive-thru lane has been slowing down. In the study, which focuses on seven well-known fast-food chains, researchers found that Chick-fil-A’s service time leaped from 190 seconds last year to 204 seconds this year, while Krystal’s average ballooned from 176 seconds to 218 seconds. Taco Bell’s average service time rose from 150 seconds to 158 seconds, and McDonald’s drive-thru got about one second slower as well. Overall, the average time increased from 173 seconds to 181 seconds.

Burger King was the only fast food brand in the study that improved its average speed over the last year, but there isn’t much for BK to brag about here: Last year, the chain had the study’s slowest drive-thru lane, with an average service time of 201.33 seconds. In the latest study, BK pushed its average down about 3 seconds.

Just like last year, Wendy’s boasts the overall fastest drive-thru, with an average service time of 134 seconds, up from 130 seconds the prior year. As recently as 2003, Wendy’s average service time came in under two minutes (116 seconds).

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Clearly, one of the reasons that drive-thru wait times have been on the rise at Wendy’s and other chains is that menus have expanded and become more customizable by customers. Fast food fans love options, and love the option to “Have it your way,” but the tradeoff is that orders can’t simply be plucked out from under a heat lamp, placed into a bag, and thrust out the drive-thru window into a car as it pulls up.

“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,” Brian Baker, president of Insula Research, which partners with QSR on the gathering of drive-thru data.

Fast food companies are constantly taking steps to lower average wait times at the drive-thru (inside restaurants too, for that matter), with innovations like double-lane drive-thrus and special stations inside restaurants devoted just to drive-thru orders. But to some extent, these companies think that it’s not necessarily a bad thing that drive-thru service times have plateaued or even increased a little. That’s because slowing things down a little helps restaurant workers actually get the orders right. Across the board, the franchises in the study were accurate in 87% of drive-thru orders—a slight fall from last year (89%), but much better than the accuracy ratings of around 80% a decade or so ago.

Accuracy is more important than speed: No matter how fast the service, no one is happy if they get the wrong food or something is missing. “Customers will be patient if you give them hot, accurate orders,” QSR editor Sam Oches explained to USA Today.

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What come as more of a surprise to on-the-go consumers is that fast-food restaurants may slow things down slightly to improve service—via friendlier, less-rushed interactions with customers. QSR reported that Chick-fil-A workers are encouraged to customize the drive-thru experience based on who is placing the order:

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.

The moral is: It’s OK to slow things down. At least a little. And so long as the restaurant’s service is accurate, friendly, and welcoming.