Are You Fast Enough?

By Ed Rubinstein, Contributing Editor | May 01, 2004

Speed is the name of the game for quick-service restaurants and new and refined technologies are paving the way for faster service times and more efficient operations. From cashless transactions and drive-thru systems to point-of-sale systems that are easier to use and maintain, QSRs are turning to information technology to get customers in and out faster and happier.

Many of the nation's largest quick-service chains contend that a 10-second improvement in speed of service can result in a 1 percent improvement in revenues. In the world of QSR, every second truly does count.

The drive-thru lanes continue to represent epicenters for upping speed of service. For years operators have been utilizing electronic timers to analyze the duration of each drive-thru task.

Drive-thru Olympics
Taco Bueno Restaurants recently completed their "Drive-Thru Olympics," an intensive, seven-week, company-wide program designed to help restaurants improve drive-thru service times and deliver better customer service. "The Drive-Thru Olympics program has been a fun, effective way to help us motivate store teams to better serve Taco Bueno's guests at the drive-thru," explains Stephen Clark, president and CEO of Taco Bueno.

As part of The Drive-Thru Olympics Program, Taco Bueno utilized the HME (hme.com) System 30A Timer to help track and improve drive-thru service times. According to Clark, Taco Bueno will continue to use it beyond the program. "The HME System 30A Timer has helped us monitor and improve drive-thru times so we can consistently provide the best guest experience possible," adds Peter Belcher, director of operations and support at Taco Bueno. The timer helped Taco Bueno stores automatically measure and collect the service time at each point of drive-thru service. Each store's service times are remotely polled from Taco Bueno corporate offices and shared with the restaurants on a regular basis. Taco Bueno used the average service window times at each store to determine the winners in each region.

The initial results showed that each store experienced improvements in service times. Drive-thru times for the company as a whole improved by more than 14 seconds. Nine percent of stores improved by more than 30 seconds; 30 percent improved by more than 20 seconds; nearly half improved by more than 15 seconds; and almost two-thirds improved by more than 10. Cash prizes were rewarded to the top three fastest locations to add incentive to keep up the good work.

Front of House Speedometer
QSRs can now extend such capabilities to the front counters as well. For example, the new Panasonic (panasonic.com) System Manager Pro software measures each front-counter task, from the time the first item is registered and sub-totaled to tender and closing of the drawer to the time the order is served. Each time slot is stored in an electronic journal and reports identify the number of transactions, total time, and average time for each transaction step.

The front-counter application is being field tested by several quick-service chains and is a built-in function to the Panasonic 7750 and 7800 POS.

Greater customer traffic has also been buttressed by card-based transactions as bellwether quick-service restaurants like McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Jack in the Box, and Sonic have expanded the amount of units that accept credit and debit cards, both at the front counters and the order confirmation displays (OCDs) at drive-thrus.

Payment Solutions
A recent study from Global Growth Group (globalgrowthgroup.com) concluded that about 15 percent of the nation's 110,000 quick-service restaurants accepted credit-card payments in 2002, up nearly 90 percent from eight percent in 2000. Another study from Visa (visa.com) in the same year found that average tickets at QSRs increased 20 to 30 percent when using electronic payment options.

Furthermore, recent advances in transaction processing technology and hardware are speeding up processing times. Many fast food companies now consistently realize tenders of 5 seconds or less. In addition, real-time web-based reporting is fast becoming a key tool to increase average checks, and streamline the reporting processes.

Last year, The Rawson Group got "slammed" at the front counters whenever one of its customers paid with a credit card at any of its 20 Wendy's restaurants. "Each dialup transaction took 30 seconds or more, which was slowing down service," recalls company controller Les Atkins.

That all changed this past winter when the operator linked the transaction processing service from Mercury Payment Systems (mercurypay.com) to its Comtrex (comtrex.com) point-of-sale software. As part of the project, all Rawson Group restaurants were fitted with broadband Internet connections, which resulted in transaction processing times of two to five seconds, improvements that were the impetus for the chain installing MSRs at the drive-thrus.

"The proof is in the numbers," Atkins asserts, referring to the stark unit-level metrics since the project was completed in January.

"Right now we're up to about 25,000 credit-card sales a week vs. 2,000 before. And average card checks are about twice that of cash transactions." He cited a recent weekly report from one unit in which there were 2,912 credit purchases with an average tab of $10.06 while the average cash ticket was $5.97.

And with Mercury's Internet-based reporting system, Atkins is now able to download sales and payroll data directly from an FTP website into Rawson's Microsoft Great Plains Dynamics (microsoft.com) accounting system, which generated quicker P&Ls and tightened accounting cycles.

Even quick-service chains whose units don't have drive-thrus are benefiting from IP-based card processing systems. One such operator is Seattle-based Taco Del Mar, an 80-unit chain whose aggressive franchising plans for this summer will bring its Baja-style burritos and fish tacos to Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Dallas and San Jose, California.

According to vice president of operations Ken Vitali, franchisees report greater speed of service from a newly installed processing system. Vitali noted that operators have "definitely improved speed of service. Plus its tied to the Wand POS (wandcorp.com) so there's no separate reconciling."

Speed of Change
Elsewhere, single-unit operators say that their speed-of-service quotients have improved by what they consider to be more flexible point-of-sale software that allow them to easily reprogram keys based on the nuances of their concepts and the learning curves of their employees.

"We easily setup our Panasonic 7750 POS for fast suggestive selling, which has cut front-counter service times," says Melissa Gallegos, owner of a Church's Chicken in Chandler, Arizona. For example, the system will automatically prompt the employee to up-sell, such as adding biscuits and peppers to a chicken-only order. "It takes the guesswork away from the cashier without having to back out any screens," Gallegos adds.

When Bret Graham, the owner of Lakin Dairy Queen in Lakin, Kansas, installed the RestaurantPro Express from PC America (pcamerica.com), his cashiers were able to process orders faster because of graphical changes he was able to make to the keys and screen layouts.

"At DQ school, you would push a button for a Blizzard and it would ask you: exotic or candy. The cashier here didn't know what that meant," Graham explains. He noted that the initial point-of-sale setup created occasional bottlenecks, especially at the drive-thru.

"It was easy to make changes to the Access database to include all Blizzard flavors first, then size," he says. Graham maintains that these changes were partially responsible for reducing average drive-thru times from three minutes to 90 seconds.

Speeding Up The Front
Of course, the drive thru is not the only part of the restaurant that has a need for speed. A growing number of QSRs are exploring self-service technology to speed up both ordering and payment and reduce lines at rush times. Restaurant executives also note the kiosk's potential to save on labor and improve upselling.

McDonald's for example, has begun testing pre-ordering kiosks in 13 restaurant in the Denver, Colorado, and Raleigh, North Carolina, area. McDonald's customers can step up to computer terminals at the front counter and in some cases in the play area and key in their own orders. The kiosks are designed by InfoAmerica (infoamerica.com).

"It's basically all about choice, about allowing our customers the opportunity to use McDonald's the way they want to," Gene Mitchell, a senior director of operations with the company, told Reuters.

"It's all done with pictures. It's very easy for the customer to use."

Thru-put Efficiency
Salad Creations of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a new QSR chain specializing in made-to-order salads, felt strongly that credit-card processing was key to its business. It chose Direct Technology Innovations as the exclusive provider of credit card/loyalty transaction services. Tony DeSalvo, vice president of sales, states, "Our choice of DTI and its trademarked Swipe 'N Go program was the only way for us to go operationally to achieve the thru-put efficiencies we require to satisfy our customers."

Swipe 'N Go provides the ability to eliminate customer signature on all credit cards and provides the operator the security of underwriting any type of chargeback under $25.00. DeSalvo states that DTI's success with Subway nationally speaks volumes on how DTI can function on scale. "This is an important issue to a start-up chain projecting over 1,500 new stores by 2006," he says.

QSRs are finding that shaving seconds off of the drive-thru and front counter adds to the bottom line.

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