The Need for Speed

At 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Friday, October 21, Sherri Daye Scott, editor of QSR Magazine, the trade journal for the quick-service-restaurant industry, and a panel of fast-food luminaries start a much-anticipated webcast. Across the country, executives at Dunkin' Donuts, Dairy Queen, Steak 'N Shake, Taco Bell and other fast-food chains are poised in front of their computer screens, ready to hang on every word. Broadcasting to the far corners of the Internet, this formidable panel is about to lionize -- or condemn -- each of their drive-thru operations.

Ever since a cook started handing greasy bags of barbecued-pig sandwiches out the back door of his kitchen to customers in 1920s Los Angeles, drive-thru food has been a growing reality for mobilized, meal-on-the-go America. Today more than 40 percent of all fast-food orders come through the drive-thru lane. But how do you measure this massive market? How can you tell whether Carl's Jr. drive-thrus are beating the pants off Burger King?

That's where QSR comes in. Every year since 1998, QSR has dispatched dozens of operatives to hundreds of drive-thru restaurants across the fifty states. These undercover agents time the speed of their orders to the second. They check for missing straws, count their napkins and check their change. They look for graffiti on menu boards and listen for static at the speaker boxes. And then they tabulate which fast-food chains have the best drive-thrus in America.


Fast-food service records

This webcast will reveal QSR's 2005 champs.

As with any good awards ceremony, it will offer up a few shockers and some no-brainers. Rally's Hamburgers, a Florida-based underdog, takes top honors, beating out three-time champ Chick-fil-A by shaving two seconds off its average order time. Perennial speed demon Wendy's again ranks first in speed with a blazing-fast average order time of 135.7 seconds, but its pitiful accuracy scores -- there weren't supposed to be pickles on the burger! -- knock it to seventh overall. As for McDonald's, its gradual decline in these annual rankings continues, down this year to an unimpressive 17th out of 25 chains.

The panel of experts is inundated with questions from fast-food execs. How do you increase drive-thru speed without sacrificing accuracy? How many car lengths do you want between your drive-thru components? How do you protect your speaker boxes from the guys who come around at 2 a.m. with baseball bats?

The fast-food industry takes the panelists' responses very seriously. Stock recommendations are often based on drive-thru rankings. At QSR's offices, Scott gets calls from CEOs pleading for a preview of the results or desperately explaining a dip in the quality of operations.

To improve their drive-thrus, chains are trying everything. Three-second credit-card processors. Digital wireless headsets. Computer screens that display each order as it's given. Electronic timers that go off when workers slow down. Contests and prizes for the best drive-thru employees. Menu boards that give off smells of cinnamon buns or french fries, swaying customers to buy, buy, buy.

As the webcast winds to a close, the panelists offer their audience a morsel of wisdom: "For drive-thru customers, the drive-thru is their dining room." And you'd better make sure it shines.


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