Fast-food world says drive-thru is the way to go

Fast-food world says drive-thru is the way to go

By Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY

There’s just one place that Victoria Vollaire stops every day. It’s not the supermarket. It’s not the ATM. It’s not even to visit her mom. It’s the drive-thru. The single, working mother straps her 2-year-old son, Lukas, into his car seat and typically steers over to the nearby In-N-Out Burger stand. There, she gets a burger, fries and root beer combo — usually splitting the burger with Lukas. This costs her $400 a month — right out the drive-thru window. “I don’t like getting out of the car,” explains Vollaire, who lives in Ontario, Calif., and works as a hotel guest service aide. “Who does?” The $129 billion fast-food industry already knows the answer to that question: fewer and fewer of us. More than half the money spent on fast food rolls in through the drive-thru lane. That’s why the fast-food giants are falling all over themselves to plaster new drive-thru lanes anywhere they can.

That’s why Starbucks — the company that sells coffee as cosmic experience — is testing drive-thrus from Washington state to Washington, D.C. It’s why 7-Eleven has such serious drive-thru envy that it wants to erect thousands.

It’s why one busy Good To Go fast-food location in Houston has 14 — that’s right, 14 — drive-thru lanes. It’s why several chains are quietly shrinking the size of new restaurants to make room for extra drive-thru lanes.

It’s why each chain spies on the other, testing and retesting whose drive-thrus are like expressways — and whose are more like parking lots. And it’s why the number of drive-thru windows at fast-food stands has doubled in five years. (The industry cooks better than it spells: It’s drive-through in English class, but it’s drive-thru at every major chain.)

In 1975, McDonald’s didn’t have a single drive-thru. Today, more than 90% of its 13,000 U.S. restaurants do. Industrywide, 80% of fast food’s growth over the past five years has been at the drive-thru.

“Most drive-thru customers are just stopping to fill their guts,” says Bob Sandelman, a fast-food consultant. The industry’s bread and butter — folks who buy fast food 25 to 30 times monthly — are the biggest drive-thru fans, he says. They want their food fast. Or they’ll bolt.

Drive-thru mania has everyone scrambling for an edge, especially with the summer approaching, when more than 30% of all fast food is sold:

  • McDonald’s is consulting with Disney about its drive-thru lanes because Disney is viewed as the world’s expert at keeping folks moving — and entertained — while in line.
  • 7-Eleven is testing its first fast-food drive-thru window in Plano, Texas — with plans to eventually make them as common as Slurpees.
  • Starbucks has drive-thrus at 205 locations. It’s even converted former Burger King and McDonald’s buildings into Starbucks drive-thrus. Some Starbucks drive-thrus have strategically placed cameras right at the order boards so that when regular customers pull up, baristas can start making the order even before it’s placed.
  • Arby’s last year delivered a new Ford Mustang to the store manager who posted the best drive-thru times.
  • Dunkin’ Donuts executives decided five years ago that every new, stand-alone unit will be built with a drive-thru.
  • Taco Bell makes 65% of its money at the drive-thru window. And it thinks it can do better.
  • Wendy’s profits have outpaced the rest of the fast foodies for one key reason: Its drive-thru windows consistently rank among the fastest and most accurate in the industry. Bolstering those numbers are hidden timers that measure how long every single car spends in line.
  • Little Caesars pizza has plopped drive-thrus in some units, hoping to attract new business.

“Right now,” says Chris Clouser, president of Burger King brands, “there is nothing more important to us than our drive-thrus.”

The drive to be fastest

Burger King takes this so seriously that it is revamping its drive-thrus with new sound systems and simpler menu boards. It is testing see-through food bags to help keep orders accurate. And every time a Burger King store sets a drive-thru record for the number of cars serviced in a single hour, it is announced in a systemwide voice-mail call.

One Burger King owner in Minneapolis offers a free Whopper to anyone stuck at the drive-thru window for more than 30 seconds.

Perhaps no one knows drive-thrus better than Lea Davis.

She’s editor of QSR, a trade magazine targeted at fast-food executives. Four years ago, she got a big idea: publishing an annual survey tracking whose drive-thru windows are best — and worst.

A fellow named Jack Sparagowski already was quietly, but meticulously, doing the survey.

Publishing the survey in QSR annually has turned the entire industry on its head. Everyone wants to win. Badly. Industry CEOs phone Davis ahead of time, begging for an early peek at results.

And the politics of the survey run thicker than cola syrup. Coca-Cola co-sponsored the first survey five years ago. That was fine and dandy because its fast-food partner, McDonald’s, finished first that year. But when McDonald’s subsequently slid further and further in the rankings, Coca-Cola bailed, Sparagowski says.

It isn’t just about pride, either. It’s about profits. Industry analyst Mark Kalinowski of Salomon Smith Barney says he factors in the QSR drive-thru survey results before recommending a stock.

McDonald’s CEO Jack Greenberg has told industry analysts that unit sales increase 1% for every 6 seconds saved at the drive-thru. And sales at a single Burger King restaurant grow $15,000 a year for each second it shaves off drive-thru time, a 1999 study says.

When Arby’s CEO Michael Howe saw how poorly Arby’s scored in QSR‘s 1998 survey — ranking a distant 13th — he went ballistic. “We decided we had no choice but to focus on the drive-thru,” he says.

Everything was changed. Preview menu boards were added to help customers make faster decisions. Soft-drink machines were placed closer to order-takers, so they could take orders and pour drinks at the same time. Toasters were tweaked to toast buns in 9 seconds instead of 12.

Arby’s also installed clearer speaker systems. It ordered wireless headsets for order-takers. It added digital screens that show customers what they ordered. And it promised big prizes — from new cars to vacations — to store managers with the fastest drive-thrus.

Result: Arby’s leaped to second place in QSR‘s survey last year.

Perhaps no one is testing more whiz-bang drive-thru technology than McDonald’s. It is installing double drive-thru lanes at 100 West Coast restaurants. It has installed new, wireless headsets in about 12,000 units.

More than 400 McDonald’s drive-thrus in the Chicago area have begun to accept payment by Speedpass — a transponder used for payment nationally at ExxonMobil gasoline stations and markets. Waving the tiny, Speedpass wand, which fits on a key ring, over a sensor exchanges the payment information and automatically debits a credit card.

To promote its use, McDonald’s occasionally offers freebies to its Speedpass customers.

McDonald’s will do just about anything to boost drive-thru traffic. At two locations in Cheyenne, Wyo., a franchisee has installed drive-thru-lane conveyor belts — one to handle food and the other to handle money. Never mind that it looks weird.

“The customer only wants it fast,” insists Jack Preiss, who owns the stores. “If you can be fast — nothing is too weird.”

Drive-thrus of the future

Someday, says Bob Marshall, assistant vice president of U.S. operations for McDonald’s, there will be voice-recognition systems — and vehicle-recognition systems — that will let customers pre-order and pick up their meals at the drive-thru hassle-free.

No one knows who opened the first drive-thru. But by most accounts, it was Royce Hailey, who in 1928 promoted drive-thru service at his Pig Stand restaurant in Los Angeles. Of course, back then, the drive-thru was different. There was no drive-thru window. Folks would drive by the back door, and the cook would come out and deliver the chain’s “Barbequed Pig” sandwiches, says Richard Hailey, CEO of Pig Stand.

Drive-thrus didn’t catch on until the mid-1970s when Wendy’s, under the prodding of founder Dave Thomas, built drive-thrus with virtually every new unit.

Thomas, who died earlier this year, also believed that friendliness could boost drive-thru business.

When visiting Wendy’s stores, Thomas loved to quietly trade places with the drive-thru order-taker. When the customer pulled up to the window, Thomas would flash his classic smile and hand the food bag to the stunned driver.

Wendy’s is the real drive-thru stickler. It recently repositioned the way the refrigerator doors open by its drive-thru windows to shave off a second or two. “This is an art as well as a science,” says Tom Mueller, Wendy’s president.

7-Eleven is arriving late to the drive-thru party. While just one 7-Eleven store is testing a drive-thru window, if the system works, “You’ll eventually see 50% of our new stores with drive-thrus,” CEO Jim Keyes says.

Instead of burgers and fries, 7-Elevens will feature sandwiches and chips. “Stuff you can toss in a briefcase and go,” Keyes says.

Technology is taking over.

Some Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Taco Bells use underground devices that track time in line to the tenth of a second. When a lousy window time is recorded, a warning bell or buzzer goes off.

The fear among some store managers is that no matter how good the time, “It’s still too long,” says John Ludutsky, CEO of Phase Research, a consulting firm.

Some drive-thrus even have video cameras fixed on the drive-thru window to capture bad habits of workers that slow things down.

Some folks don’t like drive-thrus. Cities from Sierra Madre, Calif., to Carrboro, N.C., have banned new drive-thrus. And several years ago, an Atlanta city councilman tried to outlaw new ones from opening in the city.

“The American public is getting lazier and lazier,” says Lee Morris, the former Atlanta councilman whose proposed legislation went down in defeat.

“People should be able to walk to lunch — not drive,” Morris says.

But without drive-thrus, Jodie Joyce wouldn’t have her Mustang. The Arby’s store manager from Syracuse, N.Y., won the new car for posting the fastest drive-thru times of any Arby’s in the country.

She — and her crew — did this without a double lane. Without wireless headphones. And without digital readout boards. “We didn’t need all that stuff,” she says. “We just all listen to each other.”

Perhaps the biggest drive-thru fan is Sharon Turnier.

She’s got the morning shift at the drive-thru window at Dunkin’ Donuts in West Simsbury, Conn.

Every weekday morning, around 6 a.m., the manager of the nearby electronics store would zip through and order a large hazelnut coffee with cream and sugar.

Four months ago, he drove through, placed his order and handed her an engagement ring.

“I ran outside screaming,” recalls Turnier, who jumped into the customer’s car and embraced him.

Folks in line didn’t mind the wait.


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