Drive-thrus are key for McDonalds. About 95% of the chain’s nearly 14,000 US locations have drive-thrus, with 25,000 worldwide.
Source: Restaurant Dive
“Drive-thru made McDonald’s what it is today,” McDonald’s CEO and president Chris Kempczinski said in an earnings call in April.
Now, the drive-thru is more important than ever, making up more than 90% of business thanks to the pandemic.
I gave the classic drive-thru experience a try to see how one of the biggest chains in the world stands up to the competition.
For fairness, I decided to order what the chains are most known for at each restaurant using their apps. At McDonald’s, that’s a quarter pounder and Big Mac, and of course fries.
The app is pretty standard compared to other fast food mobile ordering. I selected my order and location and then went to pick it up through the drive-thru.
The app gave me a short code to give the worker at the speaker, which I think made things move slightly faster than trying to repeat my name a few times.
My McDonald’s location has double drive-thru lanes, a relatively recent innovation that was added to reduce wait times and bottlenecks.
McDonald’s corporate has been pushing franchisees to upgrade drive-thrus since 2019 after years of increasingly long wait times.
McDonald’s average drive-thru wait times got slower every year for six years through 2019, leading to an all-time high of 273 seconds.
Along with double lanes, consolidating menus by removing options like grilled chicken sandwiches, salads, and all-day breakfast cut wait times.
I had a fairly simple order, but I didn’t wait more than five minutes to receive my food.
McDonald’s has also been investing in a curbside pickup program, with designated numbered parking spots where employees can bring out food to waiting customers.
Next up, I went to Chick-fil-A.
Chick-fil-A is a leader in the drive-thru industry, pioneering technology like handheld tablets for multiple ordering areas and taking orders by video.
The chain stands out from the drive-thru crowd in large part thanks to its workers with iPads who take orders from cars even before they reach the window. At Chick-fil-A, ordering and delivery are “zones,” not set locations.
Chick-fil-A’s app is better designed and easier to use. It’s simple to choose your nearest location, how you want to get your order, and your food.
You can order before arriving at the restaurant, and the app directs you to exactly where to go and automatically notices when you arrive thanks to geofencing.
It’s also convenient to get directions within the app, or change to curbside pickup if the drive-thru line looks very long.
My local Chick-fil-A also had double lanes, which kept lines moving.
Everything in Chick-fil-A’s operation feels thought out and operates smoothly – like a QR code to make sure customers can see the menu and know what they want to order by the time they make it to the speaker.
The chain also cuts down on wait times by sending workers out to cars waiting in line to collect payments and deliver food.
The area where windows would be in any other fast-food drive-thru is instead a large sliding door, which workers are constantly running in and out of, transporting food.
Even double lanes and carhop-style workers can’t stop the wait from being long. The chicken brand’s drive-thrus can get so busy that they create traffic and even legal issues in some locations.
Sometimes local police even get involved, directing traffic and settling disputes with other nearby businesses who get blocked by Chick-fil-A customers.
I preferred Chick-fil-A’s food to Mcdonald’s, but the wait was about four times longer at nearly 20 minutes.
Chick-fil-A is a pioneer when it comes to testing out drive-thru technology. Other brands like McDonald’s, Starbucks, and others are adopting methods proven successful by Chick-fil-A.
Chick-fil-A was the third-largest US chain by sales in 2019 with $11.3 billion in sales at its about 2,500 locations. McDonald’s was the largest chain, with $40 billion in sales at nearly 14,000 locations.
The average Chick-fil-A location makes over $4.5 million in annual sales, compared to the average McDonald’s with about $2.9 billion.
Chick-fil-A is somewhat a victim of its own success; even with some of the most advanced technology in the business, wait times are long compared to competitors.
McDonald’s has a slight edge for the moment, but Chick-fil-A is gaining on it and poised to surpass the burger giant.
Chick-fil-A’s relatively small size is an asset compared to McDonald’s. It has room to grow and build new restaurants with state-of-the-art drive-thrus, and the chain has already shown that it isn’t afraid to experiment with new technology.
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