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These popular fast food drive-thrus are getting faster

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

By Ramishah Maruf, CNN

New York (CNN) — Fast food chains are implementing all sorts of changes to their drive-thrus, and it looks like it’s paying off for customers in line, according to a new report.

Some of the leading fast food companies, such as Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A and Carl’s Jr. saw major reductions in their average total time in the drive-thru, according to customers surveyed by Intouch Insight. Wendy’s saw a reduction in 88 seconds, Chick-fil-A by 73 and Carl’s Jr. by 43.

Chick-fil-A for example, had an average total wait time of 183 seconds in 2022 (last year, Chick-fil-A had the slowest drive-thru lane in the survey, but only because it’s so popular and there are so many cars in line). This year’s time was cut to 123 seconds.

Fast food giants have been racing to improve their drive-thrus in a race to speed up service. Restaurants from White Castle to Wendy’s have been investing in artificial intelligence tech for drive-thrus. Chick-fil-A is testing out two new restaurant concepts — a four-lane drive-thru with a kitchen above, and a standalone walk-up location for digital orders.

Covid-19 made drive-thru changes more critical, when customers started relying on drive-thrus even more after a year in which sales took a hit at nearly every major chain. Backed-up drive-thrus are also creating congestion for cities and towns.

The study looked at the top ten fast food companies: Wendy’s, Arby’s, McDonald’s, Hardee’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Chick-fil-A, Dunkin’, KFC, and Taco Bell.

Average wait times decreased by 25 seconds over the year, but that’s likely due to fewer cars in line. The survey noted the average number of vehicles in line dropped from 2.76 cars in 2022 to 1.27 cars in 2023.

That doesn’t mean drive-thrus are seeing less business, Sarah Beckett, director of marketing at Intouch Insight said. Companies are pushing cars through the drive-thru faster, leaving fewer cars in the line. Many drive-thrus also are just splitting up options, such as mobile order pickups.

Service time also decreased by 4 seconds, while total drive-thru time decreased by 29 seconds.

Taco Bell led the pack in fastest total time and fastest service time. But Chick-fil-A continued to dominate in fastest total time by car, which divides the average total time by the average cars in line. The chicken chain had by far the most cars in line.

Wendy’s, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts and Carl’s Jr. followed in fastest service time.

Innovation counts

This year’s survey examined two new prototype locations: One, called Taco Bell Defy in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and a McDonald’s test location near Fort Worth, Texas.

Taco Bell Defy was designed for speedy service. It has four drive-thru lanes, the kitchen is on top of the two-story building and orders are delivered via a dumbwaiter to their cars.

When it opened last year, Taco Bell said it is was looking to shorten the wait time process to two minutes or less. The Defy location had a service time of 2 minutes and 31 seconds, the survey found.

Both locations outperformed their companies’ traditional locations by roughly one-minute each.

If companies can keep the speed up, it can translate into lucrative money. Every second counts in fast food – shaving five seconds at one location could lead to about $8,200 in gains, the study found, based on an average meal price of $10.35.

McDonald’s test restaurant has a separate order ahead lane and little room for seating.

However, the race to innovate has its consequences. Many customers and workers expressed frustration with Artificial Intelligence in the drive-thru, and experts warn the noisy drive-thru is a challenging environment for the technology.

McDonald’s test location lagged behind in accuracy compared to other fast food restaurants, the survey found.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Danielle Wiener-Bronner contributed to this report.

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