Pandemic stalls U.S. fast-food drive-thru times: study

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Average drive-thru times at major fast food chains got 29.8 seconds slower in 2020, a survey showed on Thursday, dragged by increased safety protocols and staff turnover during the coronavirus pandemic.

FILE PHOTO: French fries are shown in Hollywood, California October 3, 2007. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

A typical brand could lose $64 million annually per 2,000 stores with the slower average times this year, according to the report from market research agency SeeLevel HX.

During the pandemic, Americans have flocked to drive-thrus to get cheap food quickly with limited human contact.

That has made the car-centric service model that came of age in 1950’s California more relevant than ever, prompting chains to accelerate investments in technology and real estate to accommodate extra lanes and new ways to order, pay and speed away.

Across the industry, drive-thru visits grew by 26% in April, May and June, according to research firm The NPD Group. Even as more dining rooms opened in July, drive-thru visits rose by 13%.

Drive-thru orders accounted for nearly 90% of McDonald's Corp MCD.N total U.S. sales in the second quarter, versus roughly 70% in more normal times.

Big brands including Chipotle Mexican Grill CMG.N and Starbucks Corp SBUX.O have expedited development plans to add drive-thrus and curbside pickup, especially in suburbia.

Shake Shack Inc SHAK.N will build its first-ever drive-thru lane next year, while expanding pick-up lanes for mobile orders.

Most changes will last long after the pandemic, said SeeLevel HX founder Lisa van Kesteren.

“People have discovered the convenience of drive-thru and mobile ordering in a way they really hadn’t before,” she said, and worry about germs is also likely to persist.

Brands are adding artificial intelligence and automation to drive-thrus and digital menu boards that confirm customers’ orders are correct.

Of ten brands surveyed, only three – McDonald's, as well as Yum Brands Inc YUM.N KFC and Taco Bell – were quicker in 2020 than last year. All three had simplified their menus.

KFC had the fastest total time – from when a customer pulls into the line to when she motors away with her food – at 283.3 seconds, just under 5 minutes. It tied with Hardee’s for the lowest average number of cars in line, with 1.5.

Chick-fil-A had the slowest time at 488.8 seconds – over 8 minutes - but ranked first for order accuracy, customer service and taste.

The research was conducted with 1,490 drive-thru visits at 10 major brands, from the last week of June through the first week of August.

Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by David Gregorio