Push to make fast food faster
Chains emphasizing speedy service, fewer mistakes by workers at drive-up windows
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There's a new arms race in the fast-food industry: competing to see who can deliver faster and better service to customers pulling up to the takeout window.
With drive-through service now representing a huge portion of sales -- 70 percent at Burger King Corp. alone -- the answer can make or break the fast-food giants.
The trick is finding ways to stand out in an industry ultimately limited by how quickly workers can assemble orders, collect payment, and hand out food. 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 hasn't been cut much below about three minutes for the last five years. That's why many chains are focusing instead on cutting down on the number of mistakes in orders and making ordering easier.
''Getting faster and faster and faster isn't necessarily meeting the experience," said Mike Watson, vice president of operations at Wendy's International Inc. ''You can go too fast, and then it's just messy."
Pam Farber, the daughter of Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, remembers when she worked at one of her father's fast-food stores in the 1970s, customers were often baffled by the drive-through concept. She often had to run outside to talk to customers who were confused by the bullhorn speaker or whose loud mufflers overwhelmed cashiers' voices.
Now that unfamiliarity is no longer a problem for consumers hungry for convenience, Wendy's is replacing some of the text on menus with more pictures and placing awnings over menu boards to shield customers from rain and snow.