Foodservice by Design

Team members from Profitality-Labor Guru discuss how industrial engineering can be applied to the foodservice industry.


Assessing the Importance of Speed of Service in Drive-Thrus

Speed of service at the drive-thru declined over the past year, according to several published reports.

Labor shortages are commonly cited by industry pros when trying to explain the slower service in what’s supposed to be the fast lane. While somewhat true, other factors may contribute to this slowness. Notably, thanks to the ongoing pandemic, demand for drive-thru services remains higher than ever, resulting in longer lines. The longer the line, the longer the total drive-thru time will be.

As I ponder the drive-thru speed of service dilemma, I wonder how important this total time really is. That’s because even for the best drive-thru operators, their speed of service times are not very good. One good example of an elite drive-thru operator with a longer speed of service is Chick-fil-A. Despite knowing they might have to wait in a line, customers flock to this chicken chain’s drive-thru in droves, sometimes creating some significant traffic jams that go out onto the street. To rectify this situation Chick-fil-A has cleverly developed queuing lines outside the chain’s restaurants that resemble a coiled snake more than a typical drive-thru line.

So how does Chick-fil-A deliver such high drive-thru sales levels despite high total times and long drive-thru lines during peak periods? The Georgia-based chain takes hospitality to the car and embraces the concept of progressive movement. I call this the Disney effect, at least this was the case prior to the “Fast Pass” era. While waiting in lines at the amusement park, Disney entertains you. Additionally, by keeping the line consistently moving, guests feel they are making progress toward their end goal of getting in the event.

The same applies to Chick-fil-A. The chain takes the hospitality it’s known for inside its stores and applies it outside by deploying a well-organized group of employees whose sole purpose is to execute drive-thru service. This approach embraces both form and function. The function is to take the order, get payment, deliver the food and keep the cars moving, while the form is to provide a direct link to the guests, should they need it. As this occurs, real-time goes by, often a long time, but perceived time by guests is not as long. But the net business result is hourly throughputs in one hour, equivalent to what some concepts deliver in one day over this mode of service.

So how important and relevant is speed of service? The answer is that it is important, and concepts should design all of the operating parameters (process, procedures, equipment and technology platforms, people deployment, place design and products and promotions) to be able to deliver fast service, especially at non-peak periods. It is likely more important, though, to be able to process high number of cars during peak periods, since this is where the demand is and, subsequently, it’s where the money is at. It is almost as if during non-peak periods concepts should measure the speed of service time, as the surveys previously mentioned do, but at peak, they should measure the number of cars being processed.

More insights on how drive-thrus can deliver an optimum experience for guests and for employees can be found in a prior blog written by my partner. If concepts follow these recommendations, they will keep the fair share of the growth in the drive-thru service mode demand that has sprung up due to the pandemic. While it may be true that inside service will continue to grow as the pandemic subsides, the projection is that it will not go back to where it was, making drive-thru service and other off-premises service modes offered to guest much more important.