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Why Drive-Thru Dining Is Getting Slower

Fast food is getting slower, but the big companies don’t seem too worried, and chances are, neither are you.

Why Drive-Thru Dining Is Getting Slower
[Top Photo: Bonnie Schupp/Getty Images]

What does another 15 seconds matter to your day? It’s an insignificant sum, nothing you might notice while waiting in a drive-thru for your lunch. But multiply that by 100 customers, and it balloons to a 25-minute wait on your fries. Multiply that by the 68 million people McDonald’s serves each day, and lines are backed up by 32 years.

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If just one in 100 people deem that wait too long, McDonald’s loses hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each day. Over the course of a year, a few seconds here or there can equal tens of millions of dollars or more.

In response, the fast food industry has spent decades devising all sorts of ways to make drive-thrus faster. Instead, however, they are getting slower.

Flickr user Justin Baeder

In fact, McDonald’s is facing its slowest service times in 15 years, making the average wait for your Big Mac over three minutes. And despite the fact that drive-thru business represents roughly 50% to 70% of all sales in the $191 billion fast food industry, McDonald’s is no outlier. Over the last decade, the fast food industry as a whole has been trending to serve us slower.

But you know what? The big companies don’t seem too worried, and chances are, neither are you. Because while the old metric of drive-thrus used to be speed, the new metric is much harder to quantify: experience. That encompasses everything from the way employees take our orders, to the way food is packaged, to the way the actual food is designed itself. If we are spending a few more minutes shoveling food into our gullet while driving, at least it feels special.

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I. Every Consumer Is Treated Like A Foodie

The great drive-thru slowdown is largely fast food’s response to changing consumer tastes–namely, less fast, more food. Despite the fact that as many as 55% of us are eating a meal each week in our car (according to KFC’s internal research), we’re still demanding, not just quick burgers and fries, but foodie-worthy meals.

“Everybody knows food now. Everyone watches the Food Network,” explains the head of Taco Bell’s Chief Food and Innovation Officer, Liz Matthews. “Food is no longer just fuel. Consumers want to have an experience with food.”

Though, it may be more apt to say that, while people have always wanted an experience with food–food as experience is the very foundation of fine dining–they now crave an experience at the fast food level.

Meeting this consumer demand has led menus to balloon in complexity, one of the biggest factors in determining drive-thru speed. At Taco Bell, there are now over 70 items on their menu–spurred on, not just by new flagships like the Doritos Locos Taco, but an entire line of Chipotle-esque “Cantina” foods, adding nine new ingredients for cooks to juggle–including guacamole that is hand scooped rather than squeezed out of a bag. While touches like this are important because, as Mathews says, people “eat with their eyes,” each of these seemingly small decisions in ingredients or preparation adds up.

Flickr user Matt McGee

Even at Wendy’s, the current team to beat in the drive-thru sprint clocking a 1:33-minute service time, they operate what’s essentially two staffs for efficiency. There’s a drive-thru staff and a dining room staff, and managers use to-the-moment analytics software to spot kinks in their line. Yet they’re still about 15 seconds slower than they were a decade ago thanks to foodie-driven items like a Bacon Portobello Melt on Brioche necessitate a whole new complexity of buns and toppings.

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“All of the chains are introducing new products or limited time offers, and that’s because the consumers are demanding them and enjoying them,” says Wendy’s senior vice president Denny Lynch. “It does also appear that the consumer is understanding of [the resulting slowdown], because it’s the consumer, after all, who is asking for the new buns, the new toppings, the more complex salads, and the expanded menu items.”

However, fast food as a foodie experience seems to be working better for some companies than others. Taco Bell is profiting well from it, Wendy’s, too. But McDonald’s newly bloated menu is slowing drive thru speeds, causing complaints from franchise owners, and failing to bolster profits in the process.

II. Some Leverage Technology, Others Just Deploy Smiles

Drive-thru service has undergone huge changes as the industry developed. The first restaurant to take the concept mainstream was In-N-Out; created by founders Harry and Esther Snyder 1948, their drive-thru was crafted as a resourceful way for a 10’x10′ restaurant that didn’t have enough space for tables, seating, or even parking to cater to customers. America had already been sold on drive-up restaurants, where you might park your car and get a bite to eat. But the drive-thru offered major financial incentives to businesses–cutting down on the costs of both real estate and staffing, and as a big cherry on top, offering businesses a tax break on every meal sold through a window rather than a seat. Through the 1950s and 1960s, this tax loophole provided a competitive advantage to fast food restaurants.

Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker

Back in 1948, Harry and Esther’s customers didn’t understand how to order through a two-way speaker, so they’d send out their two boys, age 10 and 11, to educate their customers on the process. Today, Chick-fil-A has taken a similar person-to-person approach with drive-thru ordering. They’ve eschewed technology like order confirmation boards, and instead has trained its operators to provide the most personal experience possible–actually matching the emotional state of a customer. So when placing an order into that drive-thru menu board, a jokey customer might be reacted to with a jokey attitude, or a curt customer might be handled with more word efficiency.

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Wendy’s teased a somewhat opposite approach. While employee empathy is part of their training, too, Wendy’s is putting a bigger priority on mobile payments and electronic menus. But those technological pursuits haven’t stopped Wendy’s from a pretty simple idea: transitioning all of their sandwiches from paper wrappers to cardboard boxes. Lynch says the new packaging is “easier to travel with–not necessarily easier to eat in the car–but to travel with.”

III. The Food And Its Packaging Have Become One Entity

Meanwhile, KFC has spent two years pushing drive-thru packaging to extremes with the development of their patented Go Cup, a mini meal that fits right in your cup holder. Whereas that idea may sound a bit funny, the approach stemmed from careful market research–namely, that about 50% of 18-32 year olds said they would be more likely to eat in their cars if that food fit in a cup holder.

The Go Cup began as rough sketch of a drink cup with a divider in it, and after 10 iterations, it never became much more complicated than that. But the humble Go Cup is a master of fast food efficiency, wrapping itself around smaller portions of existing foods–fitting a piece of boneless chicken, a small sandwich, two tenders, three hot wings, or four chicken bites, along with potato wedges inside. It’s customer-customizable and easy for employees to make. A foodie-level experience the Go Cup is not, but KFC, strategically, has seemingly perfected convenient eating in the car.


Yet whereas Go Cups are a novel idea, Taco Bell is considering their packaging at a more intrinsic level. They actually design their food to be easier to hold and to eat.

“When people are eating our food, they’re typically doing something else,” Matthews says. “So portability is very important to them.”

In turn, every menu item they develop is rigorously tested to taste good and be easy to eat in a car as well as inside the restaurant. A large problem with that premise, Taco Bell admits, is that the taco is an intrinsically messy product, which may explain why we’ve been seeing so many non-taco items from Taco Bell. While old mainstays, like Nachos Bell Grande, practically require a change of shirt and a shower after consumption, newer items like the Crunch Wrap or Grillers feature gooey meat, cheese, and sour cream safely ensconced into a tortilla you might be able to eat without a napkin–or as Matthews describes these menu feats, “all of the taste of Taco Bell wrapped up.”

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Taco Bell’s Grilled Stuft Nacho ad, all about meal portability.

More clean food engineering is found in the Taco Bell breakfast items currently being test marketed. Their new Cinnabon Delights are essentially frosting that’s wrapped in bite-sized dough balls to counter sticky fingers in the car. But interestingly enough, even with Taco Bell’s borderline obsessive pursuit of cleanliness, there are times when they know a consumer wants to get dirty.

Flickr user Laine Trees

Case in point was their Doritos Locos Taco. For Taco Bell, this was already a hyperbolic, foodie-worthy experience, but it had to be delivered in the right way. The answer was a taco holster–a stiff paper wrapper–which of course made the taco feel elevated in stature. But it also made the taco a Choose-Your-Own-Mess adventure.

“Part of the Doritos experience is getting that orange seasoning on your fingers,” Matthews says. “That holster gives you the choice as a consumer.” The choice, to get messy or not, is one that Matthews says most consumers don’t even know they have. This is not unlike the the myriad compromises and design tweaks invisibly built into the ever-changing drive-thru window.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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