Fast Food restaurants would rather you not come inside

Photo (c) Vostok - Getty Images

Customers who do tend to have to wait a while for service

If you’ve frequented a fast-food restaurant in recent months, you may have noticed there is a big difference in service between the drive-thru lane and the dining room.

At most franchises, the drive-thru lane moves fairly quickly. When you go inside, it can be a completely different experience, as Jay, of Brooklyn, Conn., explained when he recounted a recent trip to his local McDonald’s.

“I waited over five minutes for someone to come to the register,” Jay wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review. “I had to say, ‘Is anyone working here?' This morning I entered the same establishment and used a stopwatch to see how long before anyone noticed me. Five minutes and 40 seconds it took before the woman at the drive-thru noticed me and asked what I wanted.”

The fast-food industry experts we consulted say there have been systemic changes to the fast-food industry, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After laying off most of their workers, restaurants are finding it difficult to hire them back now that the pandemic is over.

Kitchens with a drive-thru window

With a few exceptions, the industry has reinvented itself, turning once-bustling restaurants into kitchens with a drive-thru window. Restaurant expert Bob Vergidis, chief visionary officer of, says wait times are growing across the fast-food industry, in part because of on-demand platforms like Uber Eats and Grubhub. Ordering online or through mobile platforms, especially at surge times, creates a bottleneck of orders, and paired with labor shortages, results in longer wait times.

“A new class of jobs has been developed pulling hourly employees out of the restaurant labor market and into jobs that are satisfying this new economy,” Vergidis told ConsumerAffairs.

Fast-food restaurants are simply trying to cope with their new reality by revamping their systems to operate with fewer employees. Some apparently made the decision to prioritize the drive-thru business over dine-in customers because it tends to be more profitable. Customers get their food, pay and leave. There are fewer cleaning chores.

Jason Feemster, the owner of Point of Sale USA, says restaurants have developed systems to operate with as few as two employees at a time, even incorporating more technology into the process.

Long term, there could be problems

“That might sound like a good idea on paper, but it can actually end up hurting the business in the long run,” he told us. “If you don't have enough folks working, the customer service level and overall dining experience can suffer, and customers might decide to take their business elsewhere.”

Franchise expert Joel Libava, at Franchise Selection Specialists, tells us he’s experienced slow service even in the drive-thru line and knows how frustrating it can be. He also has concerns about the future of the industry.

“As a franchise industry professional, industry writer and observer, I see the state of the fast food industry as not being good on the consumer side,” Libava said. “That said, the franchisors and the franchisees seem to be doing pretty well, financially. I'm good with that, but the prices and the wait times are unacceptable.”

But it’s likely that inside service at fast-food restaurants isn’t going to improve anytime soon. The industry is encouraging customers to order using an app so that the restaurant has more time to prepare the order.

Are apps the future?

Feemster says mobile apps are indeed the future of fast-food service. Aside from streamlining service, it’s a way for the franchise to offer customers promotional deals and keep customers in their cars and out of the restaurant.

“By promoting the use of mobile apps and drive-thru services, fast-food chains are adapting to changing customer preferences and technology trends,” he said. “Before long, there won't be anyone at the front counter to take your order!”

However, there are a few exceptions. Chick-fil-A was rated number one in guest satisfaction last year by QSR, an industry publication. Its drive-thru lanes have been found to be among the slowest, but that's because there are so many customers in line. At lunchtime, its dining rooms are usually packed but without excessive wait times.

Vergidis says Chick-fil-A has set itself apart by investing in its employees, who he says are the face of the company. As a result, there are ample employees to serve customers inside as well as in their cars.

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