The Drive Way

By Mary Carlin, Contributing Editor | September 01, 2005

There can be little argument about the importance of the drive thru for quick-service restaurants. For many QSRs, well over half of sales come through the drive thru and the vast majority of those sales come in two short bursts. While speed has been the exclusive concern for many years, more and more QSRs are beginning to focus on other aspects of the drive thru. Ask a restaurant operator about their drive thru and they are as likely to talk about order accuracy or payment options as speed, these days. Speed may be king, but other considerations are making their way to the table.

Given the importance of the drive thru that operators are trying a wide range of new and innovative solutions to improve speed, increase efficiency and boost accuracy. Both McDonald's and Hardee's have made splashes by implementing remote call centers (See "Technology to Go," April 2005), while a number of other QSRs are developing wireless POS line-busters for the drive thru. Many others are focused on in-kitchen technologies and communication systems to boost efficiency.

Burn, baby, burn

"I want blisteringly fast drive thrus, because they're the people in a hurry. It's literally burn, baby, burn," says Jim Beglin, vice president of operations for Harman management, which owns and runs 332 KFC restaurants in the Western United States. Company owner Pete Harman originally went into business with the Colonel, and created the byline •Finger Lickin' Good'.

"People go to drive thrus because they don't want to get out of their cars--not because they want to eat in their cars," continues Beglin. "People will eat there if it's really, really, really fast, even if it doesn't taste as good." Harman Management doesn't offer incentives to its managers with bonuses for speed, however, because Beglin believes that reduces the freshness of the products.

Beglin is also a believer in technology that drives both speed and accuracy. "I try and introduce a handful of ideas with good systems behind them and good teaching for the strongest impact and the most value," he explains.

Despite his commitment to technology, Beglin does wonder sometimes whether the technology will be there for the long haul. "I don't want the latest and greatest, because I don't want to be the guinea pig that's getting the bugs out," he insists. "I'm just hoping that next year's products aren't twice as effective and cost half as much. I want my present generation of technologies to last long enough to depreciate on it--around seven and a half years."

Sometimes it isn't the flashiest and most expensive technologies, however, that have the biggest impact. Timers, for example, have been key to increasing speed at Harman's drive thru. "If you don't have a drive-thru timer, you can bet you're slow. You'll think you're really fast, and then you're floored and embarrassed to find out how slow you are," Beglin explains. "In hindsight, we would have gone to the timers a lot sooner. Competition cascades down from the managers to the sixteen-year-olds. We have postings all over our stores: times to beat per night, fastest teams."

Communication within the restaurant is another key for improving speed. Five of Harman's restaurants have introduced Wireless IQ digital headsets from HME (hme.com), which provide automated diagnostics to gauge battery life, minimize feedback, and offer multilingual voice prompts to help employees better use the equipment. "You cannot run a restaurant without headsets," Beglin explains.

According to Beglin, HME's new digital headsets are better, cooler, lighter, and clearer. Harman locations will often have at least six people with headsets on. "You need a lot of headsets, allowing extra ones for recharging and repairs, so that the packers and preparers don't have to look at the screens to start the orders," he advises.

At Harman's co-branded KFC/Taco Bell units, some products may take 27 seconds to grill, meaning the headsets provide a critical headstart for the grill worker even if workers go out of order, sequentially, to stay on top of things. One potential difficulty he cites with the digital headsets is that wireless phones can sometimes cause interference with the headsets.

In the future, Beglin sees more interactive technologies at the menu board, and verification boards being used to ensure accuracy and to counteract theft: "That way, you know they're ringing it up. We have great surveillance cameras available to check, but you need to slow it down from real time to watch in order to catch them."

Impulse buying

"We're only at the beginning of using technology to manage the guest experience in the drive thru. Purchase behavior is impulse--but the management of that behavior is minimal at the moment," explains industry expert Tom Miner, Principal at Technomic. McDonald's is using multimedia to spur impulse purchases in the drive thru line with static POP merchandising like backlit posters featuring new products and desserts.

"Video is where we're headed," he says. "Verification boards enable customers to check order accuracy in real time, but they should start to play desserts after. It needs specific pop offers for me from the computer then. Customers like to see it written and to hear about it (and someday smell it) to buy the specials. Each time you tickle another sense, you're going to get a few more percentages of customers buying that item." Miner sees cashless payments also spurring customers to buy more, and sees another opportunity for upselling there: "That doesn't have to be a 6" x 6" screen. They could see a dessert there and push another button to buy it."

Time is still the great differentiator for drive thru, driving the ROI of any and all technology investments. "Anything that's going to cut time out of the guest experience will have a very large and direct impact on sales," Miner explains. "The next step will be for take out to become an experience, not a transaction--that's going to be taken for granted. We're going to be able to build a customized, personalized relationship with the consumer." Watch this space for further CRM developments coming down the drive thru line.

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