Fast food restaurants hope to improve businesses through drive thru services

There’s a new race in the fast food industry to see who can deliver faster and better service to customers through the takeout window.

Drive thru now represents a huge portion of sales. Burger King Corp. gets 70 percent of its business from its drive thru.

The trick is finding new ways to stand out in an industry ultimately limited by how fast workers can assemble orders, collect payments and hand out food to drivers. Companies are trimming bulky text from menus using computer programs that guess upcoming orders and routing order-taking duties to call centers.

While speed remains a benchmark of success, the average service time has not been cut to much less than about three minutes during the last five years according to QSR Magazine.

That is why many chains are focusing on cutting down the number of mistakes in orders and making ordering easier instead.

“Getting faster and faster and faster isn’t necessarily meeting the experience,” said Mike Watson, a store manager of Wendy’s in Orlando. Wendy’s is replacing some of the text on menus with more pictures and placing awnings over menu boards to shield customers from rain.

Technology firms such as TechKnow Inc. are stepping in with digital menus, used at many major chains, that can increase sales by suggesting “missing” side items or desserts to customers who order only entrees.

And outsourcing is expanding at McDonald’s Corp., where some stores are using central call centers rather than cashiers in the restaurant to take orders from drive-thru customers.

Smaller chains, such as Checkers Drive-In Restaurants Inc., have started testing confirmation screens, which display orders back to customers so they can make corrections before pulling up to the window.

Without such developments, speed will continue to stagnate, said Brian Baker, president of the marketing research firm Insula Research, whose clients include Burger King.

Baker wrote part of the 2005 drive thru study for trade publication QSR Magazine.

The magazine spot-tests major chains annually to measure drive thru speed and accuracy.

Wendy’s, with 9,800 restaurants and $3.2 billion in annual sales, has led the QSR studies for speediest service nearly every year since they started keeping record in 1997.

But Checkers trimmed that lead to just three-tenths of a second in 2005 with debit and credit payment systems and touch-screen computers for order-takers.

Cutting menus is a tried-and-true way to improve speed as well, Baker said, noting that companies rolling out new menu items have had a more difficult time beating the clock.

Tonya Anderson, 20, a police dispatcher from Quincy, said from her experiences, communication with drive thru employees have come a long way. “They haven’t gotten faster, but you can understand them now.”

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