Fast-food drive-thru lanes speed up as fewer drivers wait in line

Chick-fil-A had the slowest average drive-thru experience in 2022, but the highest customer satisfaction.

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Fast-food drive-thru lanes are speeding up as fewer customers choose to order their meals and milkshakes sitting in their car, according to an annual study by Intouch Insight released Monday.

The average total time spent in a drive-thru lane shrank by 29 seconds this year. Wait times to order were 25 seconds shorter, as the average number of cars in line to place orders fell from 2.76 to 1.27.

The Intouch Insight study was based on visits to nearly 1,500 locations of Arby’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Chick-fil-A, Dunkin’, Hardee’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Wendy’s. Mystery shoppers ordered from the drive-thru lanes during a range of times from June to July.

Taco Bell, KFC and Carl’s Jr. had the fastest overall times for their drive-thru lanes. But Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s and Wendy’s bested all three chains when their longer average total times were divided by the number of cars in line. In other words, Carl’s Jr and Yum Brands’ Taco Bell and KFC were only speedier because their drive-thru lanes weren’t as popular.

But across the board, drive-thru lanes have waned in demand since the pandemic began. At that time, customers shifted from ordering inside to ordering from their cars. The trend continued even as fast-food restaurants reopened their dining rooms.

But the surge in popularity put pressure on workers to assemble orders quickly and accurately, and fast-food chains had to come up with solutions like curbside pickup for mobile orders to address the problem. Despite those efforts, this year’s total drive-thru times still lag 2019 times by 15 seconds.

Many diners have now shifted to ordering online or using self-order kiosks inside restaurants.

Even as drive-thru visits stabilize, restaurant companies like McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A are still working to speed up service and reduce errors. Some are testing artificial intelligence software to take orders or building new locations with as many as four drive-thru lanes.

Intouch Insight’s mystery shoppers visited two special restaurants this year: a McDonald’s test restaurant outside of Fort Worth with an order-ahead lane and a drive-thru lane, along with a Taco Bell location in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with one traditional drive-thru lane and three additional lanes reserved for delivery drivers and customers who ordered ahead.

Both locations’ service times outperformed their broader brands’ times by roughly a minute. The Taco Bell restaurant also outperformed on order accuracy with a score of 88%, versus the chain’s rate of 85%. But McDonald’s test location fell short with an accuracy score of 80%, well below the chain’s rate of 88%.

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