Average Drive-thru Times Slow During Pandemic

But digital menu boards help speed up the line.

October 06, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many consumers are favoring drive-thru lanes as a safer and more convenient foodservice option, and that increase in popularity has caused drive-thru times to slow by nearly 30 seconds across 10 national food chains, reports CNBC.

As consumers increasingly pick up their fast-food orders from the comfort of their car, average drive-thru times across 10 chains slowed down by nearly half a minute, according to an annual study conducted by SeeLevel HX. However, the study also found that 23% of locations were using digital menu boards, which shaved off 12.3 seconds of drive-thru time.

Drive-thrus have always been an important feature for fast-food restaurants, but the pandemic has influenced consumers to favor them as an easy pick-up option. Drive-thru visits increased by 26% in April, May and June, according to the NPD Group. Taco Bell reported that an additional 4.8 million cars passed through its drive-thru lanes during its second quarter. 

The abrupt change in consumer behavior has motivated restaurant chains like Starbucks and Chipotle to add more drive-thrus to their restaurants. A look at convenience-store drive-thrus can be found in this month’s issue of NACS Magazine.

Total average drive-thru times slowed by 29.8 seconds this year, weighed down by longer wait times, according to SeeLevel HX’s mystery shoppers. Only McDonald’s, KFC and Taco Bell have trimmed their times, the market research firm said. KFC topped the list for fastest drive-thru at 283.3 seconds.

Overall service times, or the time between ordering and picking up the food, were faster this year, perhaps in part due to chains trimming their menus during the pandemic to make kitchen operations easier. McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other chains have been upgrading their drive-thru lanes to reduce service times.

QSRs have also limited their menus to make orders simpler for employees, while digital solutions, such as digital menu boards, are easier for customers to read and can steer them toward ordering certain items. According to the study, about 23% of restaurants visited by SeeLevel HX’s mystery shoppers had digital menu boards. SeeLevel HX estimates that a digital menu board could result in nearly $28,000 in savings annually per location.

The study, conducted from June through August, also reviewed the various chains’ safety precautions during the coronavirus pandemic. Roughly 91% of respondents said that employees at the payment and pickup windows were wearing masks, but only 78% said that workers were wearing gloves. More than half of brands included in the study had clear plastic barriers at all drive-thru windows. And while customers may choose drive-thru lanes for a contactless experience, 80% of respondents said their orders were handed to them by an employee instead of being placed on a tray or window.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.