During the pandemic, the drive-thru lane provided a major boon to business for fast food chains who, along with the rest of the service industry, struggled to adapt to COVID-19 safety protocols for dine-in service. The U.S. drive-thru landscape has since shifted dramatically, with chains like Taco Bell unveiling new concepts like multi-lane drive-thrus in an effort to maximize speed and efficiency.
At the same time, drive-thru wait times increased across the board by an average of nearly 26 seconds from 2020 to 2021, according to a report by market research firm SeeLevel HX. That may not seem like much, but drive-thru speed is crucial for most fast food restaurants, many of which are constantly working to shorten wait times by a matter of a few precious seconds.
Much of the blame can likely be pinned on the sheer number of people who have switched to drive-thru ordering: data by the NPD group shows that drive-thru visits increased by 26% in April, May, and June of 2020, right at the start of the pandemic. That preference seems to have stuck, CNN reported in November.
This means a hell of a lot more work for drive-thru employees. So how can you, a loyal fast food patron, do your part to speed up the process and make your server’s (and fellow drive-thru denizens’) lives a little easier?
Chains like Chick-fil-A offer drive-thru pickup for mobile orders, allowing customers to place orders and pay before they even get in line.
“That definitely cuts our line down in half, I would say,” Makai Weekes, assistant director of finances at Chick-fil-A in Westbury, New York, told The Takeout.
“We love mobile orders because it’s easy for both [customer and employee],” wrote Reddit user and alleged Chick-fil-A worker Clear_Supermarket_66 in a subreddit for Chick-fil-A employees. “It’s a huge time saver.”
Nearly every fast food chain has a mobile ordering app, and many offer a number of benefits like point systems and deals. So if you’re willing to divulge a bit of personal data, this could make your drive-thru experience more seamless.
Listen to your server. Keep the music down in your car, pause your phone conversation, and otherwise focus on the task at hand: making sure you request your Dunkaccino or Spicy Chicken Sandwich with extra Polynesian sauce as quickly as possible, so your server can move on to the next customer; it helps things move quickly and efficiently.
“Sometimes customers have background noise like music, or they’re talking to someone over the phone,” said Gabriella G., who works the drive-thru at a Dunkin’ in Jersey City. “We can barely hear them.”
Engine noise can also cause issues. “Diesel truck owners[,] turn your engines off in the [drive-thru],” wrote Reddit user and drive-thru worker. “We can’t hear shit with the motor running.”
This may be an obvious one, but actually know what you want to order before you pull up to the speaker.
“One thing that could help is if they already know what they want,” Gabriella G. said.
Keeping your server—not to mention every car behind you—waiting while you decide if you’ve earned the extra guac on your Chipotle burrito bowl is just a waste of everyone’s time.
“Figure it out THEN order,” wrote one Reddit user. “It’s two separate steps.”
Chatting up your drive-thru server can be cute, if not slightly exasperating, during a slow moment. It can be positively infuriating, however, if it’s during the lunch rush and there are ten cars waiting behind you, especially if your server is at the tail-end of an eight-hour shift.
“For the love of God, my job is hard enough without nosy customers,” wrote Reddit user and drive-thru worker jayellkay84. “I’ve got 75 seconds to take your order and give you your food. I don’t know what they’re building next door and right now I don’t care. Take your food and leave.”
While the average wait time for drive-thru in 2021 was 382 seconds, according to the SeeLevel Hx report, the actual wait time depends more on the chain; some factors include longer or more complicated menus, or items that take longer to prepare. As QSR Magazine reported in its 2021 Drive-Thru Study, Taco Bell had the shortest average drive-thru wait times at 268 seconds, or 4 minutes and 28 seconds. Close behind was KFC with 272 seconds, or 4 minutes and 32 seconds.
Chick-fil-A was the slowest with a 541-second wait time, or just over 9 minutes. So if you absolutely have to have your morning Chicken, Egg & Cheese before work, consider firing up your mobile app—before you pull up to the window.