Business

So much for slow food: Visits to fast food drive-thru windows up

Restaurant and Catering IndustryRestaurantsLifestyle and LeisureDining and DrinkingMcDonald's

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.

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