Sunday, July 09, 2000

Putting fast-food to the test

Restaurants improve speed and accuracy

By Sarah Anne Wright
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In the old days, special orders didn't upset the workers slinging burgers and other edibles at fast-food restaurant drive-throughs. They just got them wrong a lot — and drive-throughs weren't always that fast, either. But times are changing, say some industry representatives, because the drive-through is a fast-food restaurant's highway to profits.

        Today, 50 percent to 70 percent of all fast-food restaurant sales are generated by drive-throughs, said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago food service consulting firm.

Local drive-through survey
        Wendy's, a Dublin, Ohio, based company that is America's third largest restaurant chain, was rated the fastest drive-through in a 1999 national survey, serving meals in two minutes and 30 seconds on average. (A recent spotcheck of Tristate restaurants by The Cincinnati Enquirer also put Wendy's in the top spot.)

        Wendy's, which sheared 21 seconds from its average in the same survey in 1998, estimates its drive-throughs make up 62 percent of sales and account for revenue gains of 12 percent last year.

        Drive-through sales are expected to keep on growing as more Americans opt for fast, ultra-convenient meals.

        “Certainly for lunch and breakfast, America's favorite dining room has a gas pedal and a steering wheel,” said Mr. Lombardi. Speed is a crucial element for fast-food restaurants, because they depend on selling a high volume of inexpensive meals. Achieving a fast tempo at the drive-through will determine which restaurant is serving the most food — and thus making the most.

        According to the survey, the average American drive-through time is three minutes, 23 seconds — based on the time the customer pulls up to the order board until he or she drives away. The survey, based on 15,786 visits to 25 restaurants' drive-throughs, by Sparagowski & Associates — a Sylvania, Ohio, market research firm — is sponsored in part by QSR, a fast-food restaurant industry magazine.

        Sparagowski & Associates first started monitoring drive-throughs four years ago. Along with speed, the market research firm checks other aspects of service. Rally's led the pack in accuracy with a rating of 89.5 percent. Jack in the Box was tops for its "speaker clarity" of 96.49 percent. Taco John's had the highest rating for menu board appearence, having the fewest incidences of missing panels, exposed lights and overall cleanliness.

        The Enquirer conducted its own test of Tristate drive-through times, sending summer interns through 10 fast-food restaurants three times apiece to compare — at least anecdotally — how local drive-throughs stacked up against the national survey.

        Interns visited drive-throughs and ordered either a regular sandwich, fries and soft drink, or a combination meal.

        With an average of one minute and five seconds, Wendy's drive-throughs were the quickest in the Tristate. They were almost a minute faster than the next fastest performer, Kentucky Fried Chicken, at two minutes, 32 seconds. McDonald's came in third, at another minute later. The orders were correct all but three times.

        The Enquirer findings, while not statistically significant, illustrate how drive-throughs have sped up and become more accurate.

        “Getting the order wrong is part of the early technology,” said Mr. Lombardi.

        Newer intercom systems, better microphones that reduce the din of kitchen noise and “score boards” (screens that display the customer's order as it is punched up on the cash register) all are aimed at improving speed and accuracy.

        “One of the reasons you have the new menu board is that if you wanted extra pickles, you could see it right there,” Mr. Lombardi said. “If it flashed no pickles, you could correct it right there.”

        At newer Wendy's restaurants, the moment a driver pulls up to the message board, a timer sounds. Timers at Wendy's no longer tally how long a driver is waiting (as the chain used to), but instead count every segment of the order completion process. Managers can identify problem areas where employees could make up a little time.

        Drive-through customers are greeted and asked what they'd like to order in one breath. Employees might sound out of breath because, most likely, they're wearing battery packs and headsets. This keeps their hands free for other work while they take orders.

        Others working the drive-through wear the headsets to hear the orders as they're placed; there is no need to relay the orders because the staff heard them.

        To further speed the process, the drive-through alley is getting longer to accommodate more traffic and multiple windows.

        At the Wendy's on Mulhauser Road in West Chester, there are two pick-up windows.

        When tested for the Enquirer survey, the employee at the West Chester store's first window leaned out holding the correct coin change in one hand, and the other hand in the till. Twenty feet farther, another employee hung out of another window with a bag of food and a drink in her hands.

        Some high-volume Wendy's have up to three windows.

        “The onus is on us to anticipate what the customer wants,” said Drew Hansen, director of area operations for Wendy's International Inc. in the Cincinnati area. The modern drive-through won't have customers ferreting around, looking for ketchup packs, straws and napkins — they're already in the bag.

        Wendy's is betting efficiencies on its drive-through line will give it greater market share in the cutthroat fast-food industry. The company launched a chain-wide effort toward reducing drive-through times a year and a half ago after a franchisee in the Dallas-Fort Worth market found that making adjustments in his drive-through operation resulted in increases of 3 percent to 4 percent.

        Modest, single-digit gains translate into good profits. The average annual revenues for fast-food restaurants range from around $600,000 (Rally's) to $1.6 million (McDonald's), according to Technomic's 1999 survey of the 100 top restaurant companies.

        “We've made a concerted effort to increase speed and accuracy,” said Mr. Hansen, who's seen service times at Cincinnati area Wendy's drive-throughs speed up during their lunch rush, the busiest time of the day. Wendy's drive-through goal? Seventy-five seconds from order to delivery.

        “We are hitting that pretty consistently at some of our newer stores.”

        While there are some strong performers in the drive-throughs, overall results in the QSR/Sparagowski survey show less than spectacular performance but improvement. Drive-through performance sped up by five seconds from 1997 to 1998. Last year, drive-throughs lost a 14 seconds across the board.

        Yet if fast-food restaurants can move people toward drive-through service, they will save money. If most customers aren't coming inside the restaurant, there are fewer tables and bathrooms to clean.

        The drive-through also allows the order taker to handle more than one customer at once. At the counter, most transactions move only as fast as the food is delivered to the customer.

        Finally, drive-through customers are more likely to select food items based on the photos on the drive-through order board. These pictures are “very successful” in prompting people to order specials, Mr. Hansen said. Less variety means faster orders.

        “It helps the customer decide what to order, and it helps usat the same time,” he said of the not-so-subliminal buying suggestions. “Speed is not the end-all; our speed limit is quality.”

        Yet speed -- more so than accuracy, cleanliness, speaker clarity and food -- is the single factor in the drive-through survey that translates directly into profits.

        Butch Barker, Jeff Carlton, Tyle Fernandez, Reid Forgrave, Leslie Gabbard, Carrie Garzich, Mara Gottfried, Kevin Necessary, Christine Oliva, Tracy Reedy, Luis Sanchez and Chris Wetterich contributed to this report.


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