Fast food restaurants making changes to speed up drive-thru times

Photo (c) River North Photography - Getty Images

Experts offer suggestions on how consumers can save time and get better deals, too

America’s love for drive-thrus took off during the pandemic, handling on average about 90% of a store’s sales. And, even now after dining rooms have reopened, 75% of U.S. fast food diners are still going the drive-thru route. That number is significant enough that traditional dine-in and carryout brands like Applebee’s, Jimmy John’s, and Shake Shack are jumping into the drive-thru game. 

But if you’ve visited a fast food restaurant lately, you’ve probably noticed that things aren’t quite as “fast” as they used to be. Getting your walk-in order is taking longer than it has in the past – and drive-thru lines and times are getting longer, too. 

SeeLevel HX’s latest drive-thru study found that the average time it took someone to get in and out of a drive-thru in 2021 was almost 6.5 minutes, about a half-minute longer than in 2020. 

As far as specific restaurants go, Taco Bell had the shortest drive-thru wait times clocking in at four minutes and 28 seconds in QSR’s latest drive-thru study. Taco Bell’s Yum! Brands sibling KFC was a close second at four minutes and 32 seconds.

Among the slow pokes, Chick-fil-A had the unenviable number one position of being the slowest with a nine-minute wait time. Starbucks was the second slowest at close to seven minutes.

Changes in the works

Fast food chains are working feverishly to make drive-thrus more efficient. Some, like Taco Bell, Rally’s, and Checkers are adding extra lanes.

Wendy’s, however, is going all in. It's adding a dedicated pick-up window and parking for delivery-drivers which will move them out of the drive-thru line. The chain is also putting in mobile parking and shelving so customers can select a pick-up time when placing their mobile order and when they get to the store, park in a dedicated mobile order parking spot, and grab their meal off shelving dedicated to mobile order pick-ups.

To meet the need for speed, restaurants will likely be taking a cue from their customers, as well. Topping that list is more automation – something 70% of drive-thru customers say they want would like to see increased. 

But exactly what do they want automated? Presto, a food industry technology company says the three things topping diners’ automation wish list are A.I. voice assistants, personalized menus, and smartphone apps.

The #1 thing consumers can do to save time at fast food restaurants

If you think you’re wasting time in drive-thru lanes, you’re probably right. Until chains get their act together with their drive-thru efficiencies, the time saver ConsumerAffairs could find industry watchers suggesting most often was ordering via a mobile app. Not only can it substantially cut waiting time, but there are tons of deals that are in-app only.

What fast food apps are the best? According to The Takeout, the Top five are:

McDonald’s: Free deals like free large Fries with any purchase and $3 off any purchase of $15 or more.

Wendy’s: Special app-only offers like free any size soft drink with purchase and $2 off any Breakfast Combo.

Burger King: New app users may get a free Whopper, Croissan-wich, or Original Chicken Sandwich with any purchase of at least $3.

Chick-fil-A: Outside of individual meal deals, by using the Chick-fil-A mobile app you can order Sweet Tea, lemonade, and Sunjoy by the gallon, as well as Chick-fil-A Original, Garden Herb Ranch, Polynesian, Honey Mustard, and Barbecue dipping sauce in 8-oz. plastic bottles.

Taco Bell: “In a unique move, Taco Bell has made some of its most popular items available only through online ordering,” The Takeout said – Quesarito, Black Bean Quesarito, Black Bean Chalupa, and the $5 Cravings Box.

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