National Post

Chicken comes last in race of the pickup windows: Long wait at Swiss Chalet: Burger chains clock in near a minute as FP tests service

National Post
Saturday, October 4, 2003
Page: IN3
Section: Financial Post Investing: Money
Byline: David Menzies
Column: The Consumer Guy
Source: Financial Post

Whether the famished crowds use restaurants’ drive-throughs for speed or convenience — or just because they’re too lazy to get out of their cars — it’s indisputable that the pickup window is a ubiquitous fixture of our fast-food nation. Fast food represents more than a quarter of food-service sales in Canada, and 18% of all restaurant meals are bought through drive-throughs, according to the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservice Association.

Doug Fisher, president of Toronto-based FHG International, a food service and hospitality consulting firm, says that a fast-food restaurant typically derives between 30% to 50% of its sales from its drive-through operation. “Drive-through revenues are huge, and they are going up every year,” he says.

According to Mr. Fisher, “the name of the game” when it comes to drive-throughs is speed and accuracy.

The industry target for a burger outlet serving a customer, from the time the order is placed to the time it’s received, is one minute. For walk-up clientele, Mr. Fisher says the goal is to have the transaction completed within 30 to 45 seconds.

Competition between chains is fierce, so it’s not surprising fast-food operators are experimenting and investing in new technology, from wireless headsets that allow restaurant employees to multitask to video screens that enable customers to visually check the accuracy of their orders.

Mr. Fisher notes that McDonald’s Corp. is testing a cashless system at some of its California drive-through restaurants. Regular customers’ cars are equipped with transponders so that the drive-through experience simply entails placing an order and picking up the food. Participating consumers are then billed automatically.

“This [technology] gets rid of people fumbling for money and counting their change. Even if it shaves 10% off the time someone is waiting in line, that’s an impressive gain,” says Mr. Fisher.

South of the border, QSR Magazine (QSR being an acronym for “quick service restaurant”) performs an annual ranking of drive-through restaurants based primarily on speed and accuracy.

In a recent report, QSR crowned Chick-fil-A (a chicken-sandwich chain) as its drive-through champion for the second year running. Meanwhile, Wendy’s — which dominated the rankings for several years — fell to third place, behind Taco Bell, which had ranked as low as 17th just five years ago.

Rounding out the top five are Burger King and El Polo Loco.

McDonald’s streak of consistent Top 10 finishes ended with its fall to 12th from fourth place due to poor order accuracy. A&W, meanwhile, dropped from ninth to 17th as a result of drops in accuracy and speed rankings.

Using the same parameters as QSR magazine, FP Money went off to test eight national drive-through chains during a recent lunchtime rush (11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.) in Toronto. We added one extra criterion: whether the restaurant would accept a $100 bill as payment.

We placed identical orders at the four major burger chains (Burger King, Harvey’s, McDonald’s and Wendy’s) and requested the same condiments. In each case, the food orders were accurate. As for speed, Wendy’s took the medal, clocking in at 54 seconds, with Burger King a close runner-up.

We also tested the drive-throughs of CountryStyle Donuts, Swiss Chalet, Taco Bell and Tim Hortons. Factors that were consistent across the board: extremely courteous service, good signage and clear-sounding speakers. Surprisingly, half of the operators accepted a $100 bill as payment and, with the exception of Swiss Chalet, our wait for food never exceeded three and a half minutes.

Based on our test, Swiss Chalet should stick to sit-down service. Indeed, our experience was akin to taking in a Yoko Ono concert: it started out badly and proceeded to get downright scary.

For example, it took two minutes, 29 seconds for our presence to be acknowledged once we pulled up to the speaker. We gave our order and drove to the pickup window as requested. Another minute and 33 seconds elapsed before an employee came to the window — not with our food but to take our order again (he claimed he couldn’t hear us the first time). By the time our food was ready, a total of 19 minutes and one second had passed, a delay that killed our appetite.

Mr. Fisher wasn’t surprised to hear that the burger chains did so well in our test, but was shocked how poorly Swiss Chalet performed. “Maybe they were having a bad day,” he says. “But why they are trying to do drive-through in the first place is a mystery. Swiss Chalet is not a quick-service restaurant, so I think this is really a wrong move for them.”

Even so, Mr. Fisher predicts more food-service operators will be adding drive-throughs in future years. Pointing to himself as an example, he says, “Some people just can’t live without them.”