Jack Preiss stands outside his McDonald's in southern Cheyenne, looking up in the air. "What are you doing?" asks a man driving a pickup through a nearby drive-thru lane. "Waiting for hamburgers to fall out of the sky?"
Almost. The burgers won't really be falling from the sky -- more like descending, courtesy of the Vittleveyor, an overhead conveyer belt that transports food from the kitchen to car windows in seconds. The Vittleveyor is the centerpiece of Preiss's eight-restaurant McDonald's operation, a well-oiled, supercharged machine delivering Big Macs to hungry Wyoming residents so fast it'll give you whiplash.
Preiss has always been the quintessential drive-thru competitor. Several years ago he broke the world record for a single-lane drive-thru, serving 327 cars in an hour. But that wasn't fast enough. Like a race-car driver, Preiss realized he'd need to change lanes in order to rocket past the competition.
Breaking a drive-thru record
The solution came from a group of Brazilian franchise owners who visited Preiss's restaurants. To his surprise, they said they were serving upwards of 300 drive-thru customers every hour. "They're doing it with a tin can, a bucket and a walkie-talkie," says Preiss. More important, they're doing it with two lanes of traffic.
Almost every drive-thru restaurant has a single drive-thru lane. Having two lanes would increase speed, but how do you get the food to that second line of cars?
Preiss thought about it and came up with the Vittleveyor. The contraption involves two conveyer belts, each running through an enclosed metal tube out of the restaurant, over the first lane of cars and down to a second lane. One shuttles customers' cash and change back and forth in a small plastic case; the other whisks burgers and fries through the air in a hanging plastic basket. While one lane of drive-thru customers get their food through a window, the second get theirs through the Vittleveyor. With this technology, several years ago Preiss was able to blow his old record out of the water, serving a screamin' 407 customers in an hour, by far the world record for a double-lane drive-thru. Then again, there aren't a lot of double-lane drive-thrus to challenge it.
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There's more to Preiss's operation under the hood. His restaurant staff operates with the precision of a Formula 1 pit crew. Cashiers get change out before customers arrive at their window; if an order is $4.43, 57 cents will be waiting. In the kitchen, amid the sizzling of the grills and the blur of the burger-assembly lines, managers rally the crew. "Kick it down!" they yell excitedly. "This is what it takes if you want to move it!"
And at the single drive-thru window, they're all about HBO -- short for "Hanging the Bag Out." Before a customer gets to the window, an employee is already hanging out of it, a bag of food in hand and an "All-American smile" plastered on his mug.
"Don't let the wheels stop," urges Preiss, watching his drive-thru. He seems satisfied -- almost. It could be he sniffs a little competition in the air, possibly wafting up from Colorado Springs. Maybe his world record isn't so untouchable after all.
"We can do it again," he says. "We probably need to."