It's not your imagination: Restaurant drive-thrus are slower and less accurate

It's not your imagination: Restaurant drive-thrus are slower and less accurate

A customer views a digital menu at the drive-thru outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Peru, Illinois.

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Restaurant drive-thrus have become slower and less accurate in 2021, according to SeeLevel HX’s annual report.

The average total time spent in the drive-thru lane increased by more than 25 seconds from a year ago to 382 seconds. Compared with pre-pandemic times, that’s nearly a minute longer. Order accuracy dropped to 85% this year from 87% in 2020.

SeeLevel HX used mystery shoppers to wait in drive-thru lines across 10 chains and 1,492 restaurant locations from July through early August to compile the annual study. More than half of the orders placed happened during lunch hours.

Drive-thru times and accuracy have been key performance metrics for fast-food chains for decades, but the coronavirus pandemic has heightened their importance. As restaurants shuttered their dining rooms, customers turned to drive-thru lanes to pick up their tacos and fries.

The trend hasn’t disappeared even as many consumers got vaccinated, and the resurgence of new Covid-19 cases driven by the delta variant has given it further staying power. In August, drive-thru visits climbed 11% compared with the same time two years ago and accounted for 41% of off-premise orders, according to The NPD Group.

According to SeeLevel HX, Chick-fil-A topped the list for order accuracy, followed by Yum Brands’ Taco Bell. Arby’s, Carl’s Jr. and Restaurant Brands International’s Burger King all tied for third place.

This year, the firm did not publicly release the rankings for which fast-food chains had the fastest drive-thru lanes. In 2020, Taco Bell’s sister chain KFC topped the list.

The study offers one way to speed up drive-thru times and improve accuracy: invest in technology. SeeLevel HX found that drive-thru lanes with digital order confirmation boards delivered the food to customers 34 seconds faster on average this year.

While drive-thru business is booming, fast-food chains are struggling to find enough willing workers to staff their restaurants. Many chains have turned to hiking wages to attract and retain workers. Wages for hourly fast-food restaurant workers climbed 10% in the second quarter compared with a year ago, according to a report from industry tracker Black Box Intelligence and Snagajob. The labor crunch could be one reason for the drag on drive-thru times and accuracy this year.

Another potential explanation for the lag in drive-thru times compared with a year ago could be the return of longer menus. Many fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell drastically cut their menus during lockdowns to keep their smaller workforce from getting overwhelmed. However, as economies reopened, chains began gradually adding some menu items back, although most took the opportunity to cull their options permanently.