How Fast is Your Drive-Thru?

By Vicki Powers | October 09, 2008

Drive-thru spending accounts for the highest growth area in the last 15 years in the quick service restaurant market, says Jeff Chasney, EVP of strategic planning and CIO at CKE Restaurants, Inc. (, which operates more than 2,000 Hardee's and Carl's Jr. quick-service restaurants (QSR). It's certainly a major area of interest, he says, because America is more mobile, busier, and has less desire to go inside the restaurant. 

"Being able to get traffic through a drive-thru and getting the customer experience to be outstanding through the drive-thru is of paramount importance," Chasney relates. "Everyone is introducing new operations procedures and technology to improve both operations and customer service."
Some of the latest trends and updates in drive-thru technology center around order confirmation boards, communication through digital headsets, drive-thru timers, and sticky label receipts for order accuracy.

Accuracy in a timely manner
Only a few years ago, order confirmation boards were not commonplace, but Chasney says they've now reached full maturity. Today's order confirmation systems feature sunlight-readable display technology as well as graphics capabilities to incorporate photos of food or drink items. These systems not only help ensure order accuracy and improve speed of service but also enhance guest satisfaction that the order will be right at pick-up.

Three McDonald's ( franchises in Salt Lake City, Utah, recently installed order confirmation systems by Delphi Display Systems ( Owner Christine Beck-McKay says she and her husband's goal for the drive-thru is to serve the customer quickly and accurately with great quality food. Although speed is of the essence, Beck-McKay says they must do it accurately, which the confirmation system helps accomplish.
Beck-McKay says the screen on their new system is much brighter and the display is clearer than its original order confirmation technology. The display lists each item ordered, any special orders, and a large dollar total. Customers can watch the order display to confirm their order is right and make any necessary corrections before leaving the order area.

"By knowing the order is correct upfront, customers don't have to sit at the speaker and repeat their order," Beck-McKay says. "We don't have nearly the customer complaints that we've forgotten items in their order since the new confirmation technology."

These McDonald's locations have achieved such success in the first three months of installation that they've ordered two more displays for other franchise locations. Beck-McKay says the payoff is certainly worth the investment.

What gets measured matters
New technology in drive-thru timers makes them more reliable and able to calculate more data points than previous systems, says Chasney. Rather than using loops in the concrete, the new technology uses cameras. The camera system also reports two important stats that will help raise awareness and understanding of productivity in the drive-thru: cars that drive off after getting frustrated with the wait, and cars that have to park and wait for food out of the drive-thru line.

Drive-thru timers are the only way to control the drive-thru, according to Tim Haberkamp, owner of an Orlando-based Hardee's whose location is on its fourth timer since 1979 as technology improves. Drive-thru is especially important to this location considering it accounts for 55 percent to 60 percent of its total business.

Two years ago, Haberkamp added HyperActive Technologies' ( QTimer to his Hardee's. This model displays the time at a number of different service points: time at menu board, time traveled between menu board and window, time at window, and total time in drive-thru. Tracking these variables helps the restaurant reallocate labor exactly where it's needed during busy times. Operators can track not only how many cars visited the drive-thru at various times of the day but also which points have the longest wait time.  

As a PC-based system, management can log in from remote locations to stay updated on drive-thru status in real time. With all this documentation in the database, there's never any room for opinion; employees are either hitting their times or their not. This location is averaging around two minutes for breakfast drive-thru (with a three-minute goal) and around three minutes, 40 seconds for lunch and dinner (with a four-minute goal).

Haberkamp bought the top-of-the-line model at the time, which cost 20 percent more than the standard unit, but he felt the extra information he'd get in return was worth every penny.
"If I'm going to compete in the market today and run $700,000 to $800,000 in drive thru, it's worth the investment on a yearly basis to keep every technology I can to improve service," Haberkamp says.

"Can you hear me now?"
Digital technology has enabled order-taking headsets to make dramatic improvements for drive-thru recently, according to Chasney. The noise cancellation and clarity make this form of customer communication more accurate and efficient.

Gold Star Chili (, a favorite in Cincinnati and surrounding areas for 43 years with 96 locations, relies on 3M's ( C1060 digital headset. The restaurant chain has transitioned through three different styles of headsets in the past 12 years. The latest digital model provides clarity, is lightweight, and eliminates noise in the dining room. With the wireless headset, employees can take orders or greet customers from anywhere in the restaurant.

Mike Mason, director of operations at Gold Star Chili, attributes the 90 percent to 97 percent accuracy in the drive-thru to the digital headsets. With noise-canceling built right into the technology, employees hear voices and not outside noise. The latest technology also improved interference that used to occur from other systems with digital technology, such as cars that passed by with wireless radios or a nearby church service and its system.

Evolving technology   
Some of the other drive-thru trends that continue to develop are wireless handheld POS systems for line busting during peak drive-thru traffic and repositionable sticky labels that ensure order accuracy and customer satisfaction. Epson ( will be introducing an update this fall to its label printing capabilities with the ReStick thermal label printer. This new model helps reduce food inaccuracies with labels that can be repositioned multiple times in the kitchen for exception orders or order validation for drive-thru. 

Chasney says everyone is examining their drive-thru technology as they watch the continued shrinking of dining room customers and increase in drive-thru customers. "We're not losing customers in quick service, they're just moving channels," he says.

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