Here's why you should do the drive-thru at fast-food restaurants

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A new industry study shows most chains have improved their speed

What fast food restaurants meet consumer expectations the best when it comes to drive-thrus? The findings of Intouch Insight Ltd.’s 22nd Annual Drive-Thru Study might surprise you.

After setting up data collection at over 1,500 drive-thru mystery shops across the country, measurements were taken on everything from the average time it takes to get in and out to the friendliness of the restaurant workers consumers interact with.

The good news is that fast food restaurants seem to have gotten their post-pandemic act together again when it comes to speed. The average total time in the drive-thru line is nearly 10 seconds faster compared to last year. 

Meanwhile, most chains continue to struggle to staff the inside dining area, resulting in slower service. The restaurant industry as a whole is still down 750,000 jobs from pre-pandemic levels as of May, according to the National Restaurant Association.

The bad news is that friendliness continues to go south. Perceived friendliness is down 7% from 2019, currently sitting at 72% –  a factor the analysts say is costing restaurants over $180,000 in losses annually per store.

“We’ve all heard that a smile goes a long way, and in quick service that certainly rings true. While it stands to logic that happier associates lead to better customer experiences, the true financial and operational impact of unfriendly service is staggering,” said Laura Livers, Head of Strategic Growth at Intouch Insight. 

“With friendliness having declined in the industry, brands that can crack the code on employee satisfaction and training will be able to drive better customer service with diner experience, order accuracy, and speed.”

Who’s first and who’s worst?

Breaking down the results by category, the winners and losers include:

Average Total Time: Dividing the total time by the average number of cars in line, KFC won at a smidge over five minutes. Chick-fil-A came in last at over 8 minutes. If McDonald’s takes the study results to heart, it’s possible things could pick up there by the time the next study comes around, but in the meantime, it’s taking an average of nearly 7 minutes for a customer to get in and out of the drive-thru.

Order Accuracy: Arby’s and McDonald’s (tied for first) with 89%. Trailing everyone else is Wendy’s at 79%. 

Satisfaction of Service: Chick-fil-A and Carl’s Jr. get the prize here, tying for first. Tying for third place were Arby’s, Dunkin’, and Hardee’s.

Friendliness: As far as please-and-thank-you are concerned, the customers surveyed liked four of the five Satisfaction leaders the best: Chick-fil-A, Hardee’s, Arby’s, and Carl’s Jr. 

Food Quality: Time and friendliness don’t matter much if the food’s not any good and Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell worked the hardest on this aspect and tied for first place. Tied for third were Arby’s, Dunkin,’ and Wendy’s.

Apps are changing things for fast-food chains

The number one thing consumers are finding they can do to save time at fast food restaurants is ordering using the chain's app. Not only can apps cut waiting time significantly, but there are tons of deals that are in-app only.

"Apps of fast food brands are growing much more than their industry peers through a combination of running more 'food for download' promotions and current economic conditions, where consumers expect lower prices compared with other meal options," Adam Blacker, the VP of Insights at Apptopia said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

That factor hasn't been lost on McDonald's or Chick-fil-A for sure. McDonald's sits in first place and Chick-fil-A is up three notches to 5th among food apps on Apptopia's iPhone charts.

Combined, both of those chains are putting the squeeze on DoorDash and UberEats. And the slowdown of food delivery apps could continue. Apptopia said that installs have fallen for that segment for two consecutive quarters and are down 11.6% year-over-year.

"Food delivery is typically more expensive than ordering ahead from a brand's app because of the delivery fees, tipping, and many times the individual menu items are priced higher," Blacker wrote.

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