Faster Fast Foods

September 8, 2019
Faster Fast Foods

Drive-thrus have gotten slower over the years.

In 2018, the average speed of service increased to 234 seconds.  This is compared to 2003, when the average time of service was 190 seconds.  With the popularity of drive-thrus increasing today, even as some cities ban new drive-thrus, shortening speed of service is more vital than ever.

In order to shorten the time in drive-thrus, fast food restaurants are applying a variety of techniques.  Of course, one approach is better trained workers.  Another is to revert back to simpler menus.  Many fast food restaurants have added to their menu over the years to appeal to a broader market and to compete against new competitors.  As the menu expands, the complexity of operations increases and service time generally increases.

For comparison, early McDonald’s menus consisted of hamburger, cheeseburger, fries, shakes, and several drink options–substantially smaller than today’s menu.  McDonald’s has simplified its menu recently (see this OM in the News post for details).  In addition to these classical approaches, technologies of various types are being applied to reduce speed of service.

Video Spotlight: McDonalds investing in tech to improve service at drive-thru

This post is based on the Forbes article, Restaurant Chains Are Rushing to Put The ‘Fast’ Back in Fast Food, by Alicia Kelso, August 12, 2019; the Eater article, When Did Drive-Thrus Stop Being Convenient?, by Jaya Saxena, August 13, 2019; and the YouTube video, McDonalds investing in tech to improve service at drive-thru, by Yahoo Finance, March 26, 2019. Image source: Shutterstock/forden.

Discussion Questions:

1. Why is speed of service important to fast food restaurants?

Guidance: By definition, fast food should be fast.  With the added complexities of menus at many fast food restaurants, the speed of service in the drive-thru has been increasing.  Additionally, customers are using the drive-thrus more heavily today.  For example, over 70% of McDonald’s business is from the drive-thru.

2. How would you modify fast food operations to improve the speed of service in the drive-thru?

Guidance: Several possibilities exist.  Traditional approaches include streamlining menus to make it easier to deliver the product to the customer, more or better training to improve the performance of workers, hiring more workers, reducing preparation time by changing how the items are made, and improving order accuracy.

Changes in technologies are also a possible approach.  Many fast food restaurants are using artificial intelligence (AI) to help predict orders, digital menu boards to allow quick changes in the menu and to highlight popular items, robots to help produce the food and fill the orders, and offer ordering from apps.

McDonald’s is rolling out app ordering, and once customers order on the app, they can pick up their order at the drive-thru, at the counter, or curbside.  The hope is that flexibility will take some of the demand off of the drive-thru and as a result reduce the time in the drive-thru.

Another way of reducing the demand on the drive-thru is to deliver food.  This could be done traditionally by delivery driver, or by employing new technologies such as autonomous vehicles, robots, or drones.


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