The fastest form of fast food is getting even more popular, with 12.4 billion trips made last year to the nation's drive-thru windows -- a 2% increase from the year before.
At quick service hamburger restaurants, the drive-thru is responsible for 57% of all visits, beating out dine-in and carry-out options. The window draws 40% of visitors at Mexican fast-food joints and 38% of chicken-based chains, according to research company NPD Group.
"Drive-thru customers' expectations are straightforward -- take down my order accurately and give me my food fast," Bonnie Riggs, NPD's restaurant analyst, said in a statement. "To address consumer needs by having a drive-thru operation requires ample real estate and a complex mix of technology, logistics, and time management principles. It is really a very well-orchestrated dance."
Some 70% of fast food sales happen at drive-thru windows, according to the National Restaurant Assn. They're a constant point of innovation for chains, which in recent years have adopted high-tech ordering systems, multiple lanes, 24-hour windows and more.
Other innovations include certification programs for drive-thru cashiers, canopies and landscaping to make the drive-thru more attractive, menu boards that allow customers to mull over their choices and order confirmation boards, according to a study last year from QSR magazine.
In 1998, the fastest drive-thru was Long John Silvers', which averaged 159.1 seconds. Whataburger had the best accuracy rating, with 86.7%.
Last year, Wendy's was speediest, with 145.5 seconds (slower than the industry record of 116.2 seconds it set in 2003). Del Taco was most accurate, getting 96.5% of orders correct.
Added efficiency helps boost turnover; it also keeps fast-food companies competitive with the convenience stores that are heavily moving into the food-service industry.