Fast Casual and the Drive Thru Conundrum

If you’re a fast casual concept, part of your mission is to feed the foodies who’ve turned their noses up at fast food. Fast casual has carved out a niche where dollar menus once dominated by delivering the experience that more consumers are demanding. The typical customer entering a fast casual concept is okay with spending a little more money to get higher quality cuisine, a fact that QSRs are finally beginning to realize.


Which Wich takes on the 3-minute lunch, an endeavor once dominated by QSR.

And fast casual takes this mission seriously, as some concepts are delivering goods that rival and surpass many of their casual and fine dining older brothers. However, time is still of the essence in the land of made-to-order fresh & local. While these mashups of two schools of dining may take their cuisine cues from chefs, they’re still expected to deliver food somewhere near the pace of the leading QSR brands that customers have been engaging with for decades.

With the line differentiating QSR concepts from their slightly more sophisticated competitors blurring more every day, it’s natural that – in the eyes of the consumer – expectations from one segment of the industry may be applied to another. Just as QSRs are forced to reinvent their menus to have a chance at competing with fast casual cuisine, if fast casual wants to take aim at QSR’s drive thru dominance, they need to learn how to compete with the convenience of a three-minute lunch.

(Lack of) Speed Kills

Fans of better burgers will long for the more unique and customizable menus of fast casual concepts when hitting a true fast food (QSR) franchise. The big names have taken notice, and campaigns are mounting to reinvent stale menus and stale brands with fresh attempts to win back QSR deserters. Whether or not QSRs can refresh their slumping numbers remains to be seen as the fast casual segment continues its noisy climb like a bottle rocket of unknown proportion.

Drive thru kiosks can increase throughput so much that more employees are needed to keep production on track.

Yet when the same customer needs to quickly crunch lunch at high noon, a number one and a Coke in three minutes or less might prove more tempting an involved visit to a fast casual concept. Fast casual guests have shown that they’ll pay more for quality, but the longer the wait, the more customers will walk away. Doubly so for customers at the drive thru, where recent research shows that shaving seconds off of drive thru wait times directly equates to greater market share.

With a recent surge in fast casual drive thru operations, concepts seeking to grab a share of the QSR market have met with a difficult standard: high quality at high speeds. As better burger joints, gourmet sandwich shops, and other budding concepts are scrambling to deliver sub 3-minute ticket times, they’re looking for ways to streamline their service: namely, many are finding themselves opening up drive thrus.

But we’re witnessing these pioneering concepts experience growing pains. Customers won’t tolerate waiting 10 minutes in the drive thru – no matter how much improved the meal might be.

Moe’s Southwest Grill is another QSR competitor leveraging technology to deliver a better drive thru experience.

Large Menus and Loud Mics Square off

The sheer amount of available options to customize food – a hallmark of fast casual concepts – can directly inhibit fast and accurate drive thru operations. Careful consideration is needed to execute every ticket to ensure orders are prepared quickly and are customized per the guest’s requests. Achieving this in production presents its own sets of challenges, but simply getting the correct order fully intact from the kitchen to the customer often proves to be just as tricky.

Getting the order right every time at the drive thru is hard. QSRs struggle with this even when most orders are as simple as saying a number and a size. Communication is even more of a hurdle with more sophisticated menus that beg for the kind of personalized customer input that fast casual concepts are known for. The more communication required, the more chances for an incorrect order. Speakers and headsets may be an imperfect choice for fast casual when there are so many factors working against them (noise, aging systems, bad hardware, short attention spans), and a single order can contain as many as 10 or more modifiers, a.k.a. opportunities to make a mistake.

One concept recently tossing their hat into the ring utilized no fewer than three employees to listen to every drive thru order to ensure accuracy and get a jump on production. Though this has proven somewhat successful, this method required “extensive testing and training” to yield a throughput of “about three to five minutes.”

Many concepts are adopting new technology early-on as a way to refresh their brand’s appeal.

To some, this method can simply be read as costly and fallible. With the turnover rate inherent in the restaurant industry, is it sustainable to offer extensive testing and training to every employee in order to ensure that they possess the basic skills required to take orders at the drive thru – something one would assume that any employee should be able to do? If not, what happens when the few members of your specially trained staff head to greener pastures or just stop showing up? What is the cost of their replacement, and how frequently and consistently can a concept afford to deliver enough training to ensure they’re not left hanging when Murphy runs amok?

Poor Communication: Leading Cause of Food-Divorce?

Other concepts have taken a different approach by improving the menu boards at the drive thru with digital signage that automatically dayparts and helps boost high-margin item sales. Incremental sales are nice, but any kind of sign’s principal task is to effectively communicate the concept’s offerings to the guest in a quickly digestible manner. If the item the customers wants isn’t directly next to all of the available condiments or toppings, are they stopping to reference the digital sign again or stopping to ask the speaker? With most sandwich concepts offering over a dozen toppings, as many condiments, different bread selections, multiple varieties of cheese, chips, soda and just about everything else, being able to quickly and effectively put these options where the guest needs them when they need them is just covering the bare minimum requirements for an effective drive thru operation. If digital signage isn’t smart (and even if it is, guests don’t always pay attention), the guest has to ask questions. When the guest has to ask questions, order times skyrocket and opportunities for error abound.

Another concern is the consistency of the experience inside and out. For example, one of fast casual’s fastest growing concepts added a Coke Freestyle machine that allows for an obscene number of beverage combinations. A spokesman for that concept conceded that there have been numerous occasions where these options had to be explained to drive thru guests, even though merchandising and signage outside depicted them. It’s a safe bet that if you have to keep communicating these options at the drive thru, signage alone isn’t going to be an effective way to deliver indoor menus to drive thru customers intact.

Big brands are beginning to implement self-order indoors, but even greater benefits can be found at the drive thru.

Buzzards Circle the Brand Battlefield

Some concepts plan to rely on brand familiarity to shape drive thru expectations. The typical adage goes that customers should be familiar with their brand before they hit the speaker box, and so expect and tolerate a slightly longer wait. “Guests who are familiar with our brand will wait for our food, inside or at the drive thru,” is a nice fantasy to hold on to.

Competition and conditioning might paint a different picture. A fast casual that can clock in ticket times that rival recent QSR results while doubling their service capabilities would likely be the winner if all else were equal. Such is the nature of competition. Catering to the majority who prefer better food and faster service is the winning combination most are looking for.

While some concepts have found that modifying familiar formulas may provide blackjack odds at competing with QSRs head to head, others have searched for a better equation. Properly leveraging technology can separate markets rather quickly, rewarding the early adopters with better brand recognition and market share.

Self-Order Might Steal QSRs’ Lunch

Kiosks are still a conundrum to some concepts. They see self-order as an unfamiliar beast of questionable origins and untested mettle. “If I’m not seeing self-order implemented nationwide this second, then why should I adopt it for my concept?”

Too often, businesses react and change only when forced to do so in the aftermath of disruption. Meanwhile, early adopters are opening new locations faster with increasing market share and better performance all around.

At the drive thru, touchscreen kiosks have delivered the “three-minute dream” to a local Michigan owner involved with one of the larger sandwich chains. The concept itself lends to nearly every order being a fabrication of the guest’s imagination. With the corporate variety of signature sandwiches folded over LTOs and regional items, numerous fresh vegetables, half a dozen varieties of bread and 16 condiment choices round out the complicated equation that is not native to this style of service. The previous traditional speaker and headset system used in the order process was a chore and often led to frustration and questions as to what benefits the window provided. Order accuracy and throughput, for this concept, were large hurdles. Kiosks neatly solved these issues to help get throughput down to three minutes, meanwhile immediately delivering a $1.00 increase in check averages.

One of the largest sandwich concepts has figured out the formula for three minute ticket times while delivering exactly the same experience inside and out.

Others who have adopted the touchscreen drive thru tell similar stories. Pain points in production become acute indicators of areas to improve and performance metrics to beat. However, communication with the guest has always traditionally yielded the greatest degree of error; partly due to the nature of outdoor speakers, partly due to the human variety.

Self-order has solved their problems with communication, letting concepts figure out the best way to modify their production to follow suit. Show a guest a picture of food to lead them down the right path, and give them all the options they need along the way – when they need them. And a picture of bacon on a menu board – the kiosk screen itself – will always outsell the most consistent employee, while adding it yourself has such a sweeter feeling.

Not everyone will embrace a new formula for the drive thru, but numbers don’t lie. Being able to deliver the fast casual experience at QSR speeds is going to change the landscape. Who will capture the checkered flag remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: the best of both sides are showing up at the track with new cars for the race yet to come.


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