The labor shortage could be making drive-thrus slower, less accurate and less friendly.
According to the latest annual drive-thru study from SeeLevel HX, measures of all three variables declined, a likely result of a labor shortage that has kept many restaurants short of a full staff and lengthened lines even as dining rooms reopened.
Total drive-thru service times, measured from the moment a person gets into a line until they get their order, increased 25.59 seconds this year to 382.39 seconds, an increase of 7%.
Meanwhile, 15% of drive-thru orders were inaccurate, up from 13% a year ago.
Both of these are related to a third metric, friendliness. Drive-thru workers were rated as friendly 73% of the time, down from 76% in 2020 and 79% in 2019.
“It applies to any industry, any customer-facing industry,” Laura Livers, EVP for SeeLevel, said in an interview. “A friendly employee was more apt to deliver more accurately and quicker. The unfriendly or neutral employee is slower and less accurate.”
Technology does appear to help matters, but even when restaurants do have helpful technology they were slower than last year. Drive-thrus with order confirmation boards were 34 seconds faster than those without—but still 21 seconds slower than they were a year ago.
The study, in its 21st year, examined the drive-thrus of 10 big chains involving close to 1,500 visits. The metrics it measures are increasingly important, however, given the popularity of drive-thrus at today’s restaurants.
Most fast-food chains have seen their drive-thru sales soar while their dining rooms were closed or limited, and indeed 13% of the dining rooms at restaurants measured were still closed, according to the study.
The study measured Chick-fil-A, Burger King, Arby’s, Dunkin’, KFC, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr., and Hardee’s.
Chick-fil-A’s drive-thrus came in tops in the study in both order accuracy and taste, which was also the case last year. Taco Bell was second in accuracy followed by Arby’s and a tie between Burger King and Carl’s.
The broader numbers, however, suggest that speed overall has taken a hit despite efforts to keep them humming along over the past two years. Livers suggested that the labor challenge many restaurants are facing is to blame.
"The whole scenario validates the importance of finding the right employee who really enjoys customer experience,” Livers said. “This shows that it pays off.”
Indeed, she said, even if you have to pay more for those employees, they can bring long-term benefits. “It validates that the friendly, engaged employee is paying off in total time and in accurate orders,” Livers said. “Those are the two frustrating points for consumers.”
The study featured a few other notable points. For one thing, fewer workers are wearing masks—only 54% were wearing masks in this year’s study, compared with 91% last year. They range from 39% masked customers at the Southeastern chain Hardee’s to 81% at its California sister concept Carl’s Jr.