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Drive-thrus are all screwed up. Here’s what it’ll take to fix them

By Danielle Wiener-Bronner, CNN Business

Late this summer, drive-thru times slowed by about 26 seconds compared to last year, according to a study. That may not seem like much — but in the world of fast food, every moment counts.

“Mere seconds can be a make-it or break-it in terms of where a consumer decides to order from,” Amanda Topper, a research director at the research firm Mintel, said of the slowdowns. The data is from SeeLevelHX, which tracked drive-thru times at about 1,500 US restaurants across 10 major chains from July 5 to August 6.

A speedier drive-thru can “be a competitive advantage,” Topper said, while long lines may discourage customers from stopping in. Most Americans who eat at fast food restaurants use the drive-thru, she noted — and the option has become even more popular during the pandemic, when many customers felt safer in their cars than restaurants.

So far, the habit has stuck. A Technomic consumer survey found about 52% of quick-service restaurant orders were placed in drive-thrus in August 2021, compared to about 42% in January 2020.

In the highly competitive fast food space, increased demand through any channel is a win. Restaurants don’t want to lose ground by giving up any potential drive-thru sales, yet they also can’t overwhelm their systems and risk losing customers.

To solve that problem, fast food chains are chasing multiple solutions, many of which are about more: more lanes, more pickup options and more technology.

How drive-thrus got bogged down

Restaurant staffing is the main cause for drive-thru delays. “Labor is at the heart of a lot of the big challenges that … restaurants are facing right now,” said David Henkes, senior principal at Technomic.

Restaurants and bars were short about 800,000 jobs as of October compared to February 2020, before the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association. Workers have been leaving in droves, with the quit rate for accommodation and food services hitting 6.6% in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -— more than double the overall 3% average.

And the pandemic-fueled push to drive-thru, delivery and pickup has created a cycle: With workers scrambling to fill those off-premise orders, customers inside the restaurants may become frustrated — and turn to the drive-thru instead.

“You’re sitting there waiting in line, and meanwhile all the drive-thru orders are getting filled, the takeout orders are getting filled,” Henkes said. Until the labor situation eases, restaurants are “diverting their resources where they’re going to be most effectively used. For a lot of quick-service-restaurants, that’s the drive-thru.”

Some staff-strapped restaurants are opting to keep dining rooms closed entirely. But even if they add more employees to the drive-thru staff, there’s tremendous pressure on that channel.

At Wendy’s, for example, staffing challenges meant “we had more dining rooms closed during the third quarter on average than we did during the second quarter,” CEO Todd Penegor said in a recent analyst call. “One of the big keys for us is to get our dining rooms open to really support taking pressure off the drive-thru and support our digital business moving forward.”

Meanwhile, there’s even a challenge with the staff restaurants have managed to maintain. Turmoil in the industry means more turnover, which means less experienced workers. “If you have an employee who has been with you for a year, they’re much more efficient … than the person who you hired three weeks ago,” said Peter Saleh, restaurant analyst with BTIG.

Larger orders, another pandemic trend, only exacerbate the situation, Saleh noted. Some restaurant chains said although traffic may have slowed during the crisis, the average check size went up. That’s partially due to price hikes, but also because people placed larger orders for families or groups eating together at home.

Order ahead, double lanes and artificial intelligence

It’s not clear when, or even if, the labor pool for restaurants will grow. So restaurants are turning to other solutions.

Earlier this week, KFC announced a drive-thru alternative called Quick Pick-Up. Customers order ahead through the KFC app or website, drive to a KFC location and park in a dedicated spot, and then walk into the restaurant to pick up their food from a shelf near the register. In its announcement KFC encouraged customers to choose pickup over drive-thru.

This isn’t a new, pandemic-era idea: Fast casual chains such as Sweetgreen and Chipotle have long featured pickup shelves. Last year, McDonald’s said that it was testing express lines and dedicated pickup spots for customers who placed digital orders. Burger King also unveiled new restaurant designs last year with similar spots and walk-up order windows.

Order-ahead not only takes some pressure off the drive-thru window but also encourages people to order through an app — an important way for fast food chains to build loyalty with rewards and exclusive offers, and learn more about their customers.

Still, fast food has always been about convenience, so adding another step might not appeal to every diner. So several chains are leaning into the drive-thru.

Burger King is building prototypes with more drive-thru lanes. McDonald’s and others are experimenting with automated voice technology that can take customer orders.

McDonald’s has been testing automated order taking at several US drive-thrus, CEO Chris Kempczinski told analysts during an October call. He said the efforts “have shown substantial benefits to customers and the crew experience.” McDonald’s drive-thru times in major markets have shortened an average of about 30 seconds over the past two years, according to the company.

In other drive-thru initiatives, last year Restaurant Brands International — which owns Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Hortons — announced it will roll out digital menu screens with contactless payments by mid-2022. And Wendy’s recently announced a partnership with Google to give it access to AI and other tech that can help improve ordering at the drive-thru.

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