Drive-Thrus Are Providing Faster Service Despite Longer Lines

Dining room closures have increased the wait to place an order, but chains are fulfilling them faster than last year's findings.

Not that Americans didn't love their drive-thrus before, but the COVID-19 pandemic has turned these pickup lanes from a convenience into a near necessity. As a result, though the market research company SeeLevel HX has been running their QSR (Quick-Service Restaurant) Drive-Thru study for 20 years, the 2020 edition may be their most pertinent report ever.

Importantly, SeeLevel HX states that their data—which was collected across at least 85 visits to drive-thrus at ten chains: Arby's, Burger King, Carl's Jr., Chick-fil-A, Dunkin', Hardee's, KFC, McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Wendy's—was compiled from June 29 to August 12, a few months after a national emergency was declared. So in theory, fast food chains were already making adjustments.

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Still, as expected, average drive-thru times across the board were slower this year than last: 356.8 seconds in 2020, up from 327.0 seconds in 2019. And yet, the report reveals that the restaurants themselves weren't necessarily to blame. "Surprisingly, service time, the time from placing an order to picking up, was actually 16.9 seconds faster this year at 238.1 seconds compared to 255 seconds in 2019," the company states. "However, slower wait times in 2020 increased the overall total times." SeeLevel HX doesn't explicitly state the next logical assumption, but these results seem to imply chains did try to speed up their service, but the increased volume of customers due to COVID-19 still managed to slow things down.

"The pandemic is continuing to have a massive impact on QSRs from a spike in traffic and stricter safety standards and protocols to a substantial increase in staffing turnover and training, so I'm not surprised to see a dip in speed of service," Lisa van Kesteren, SeeLevel HX CEO, said in announcing the results. "Still, every second has a substantial impact on the bottom line. And as more restaurants rely on the drive-thru for the majority of their revenue during this pandemic, and likely long term, it's never been more critical to focus on improving wait time by investing in technology like menuboards and mobile to stay competitive."

So who is dominating the more-important-than-ever drive-thru time trials? This year's report also crowns a new champ: KFC unseated 2019's speediest chain, Dunkin', by getting customers past the window in 283.3 seconds—a bit over four-and-a-half minutes. Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A is, by far, the slowest, with drive-thru times clocking in at 488.8 seconds. However, the chicken chain's defense, a major reason is that the chain is so popular that individual locations are constantly swamped.

After KFC, the remaining restaurants look like this: Taco Bell (310.2 seconds), Hardee's (321.6 seconds), Carl's Jr. (341.6 seconds), Burger King (344.3 seconds), McDonald's (349.3 seconds), Dunkin' (351.7 seconds), Wendy's (358.7 seconds), and Arby's (394.2 seconds), with Chick-fil-A bringing up the rear.

Of course, customers don't only care about speed: They want their order to be right—bringing us to another revealing finding. KFC may have been first in speed, but the chain was dead last in accuracy. And further hammering home this discrepancy, though Chick-fil-A took a while, they ranked first in accuracy—once again proving that being both fast and accurate is a difficult task. Looking at the entire list from most to least accurate, Chick-fil-A was followed by McDonald's, Arby's, Burger King, Dunkin', Hardee's, Carl's Jr., Taco Bell, Wendy's, and then KFC. Overall, 87 percent of orders were deemed accurate across all chains.

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