Fast food, which is faster -- drive-through or lobby?

At fast food restaurants, e.g. McDonald’s, customer flow through the drive-through lane has been highly studied, documented, and refined. What I mean is… when a car drives over a sensor at the start of the lane, the expectation is that the customer is greeted within X seconds, the order is placed within another Y seconds, payment is transacted Z seconds later, the food is delivered in another A, and the car drives away B seconds after that. Of course the merchant wants to maximize the volume of sales, which means getting the most cars through as fast as possible, which is why these things were studied in the first place – to work out the most efficient methods for doing this. (Also, I suspect, as a personnel evaluation tool, to see which managers / shifts / employees are better (faster) than others.)

My question is – have they done the same thing with walk-in customers? If so… how?

My understanding is that the reason the drive-through lane lends itself to such scrutiny is that it is possible to accurately define the “start” time, i.e. when the car rolls over the sensor. Is it possible to accurately define the “start” time when a customer walks through the door? How?

The reason I ask is this: about once (sometimes twice) per week I eat at the same McDonald’s franchise. My strategy is to cruise slowly past the front window, look in and see how many people are in line, then look at the drive-through line, and then go to whichever is shorter. However, I’ve noticed that there can be many fewer people in line in the lobby than there are cars at the drive-through, but the drive-through line seems to move much faster.

The configuration of this particular McD’s lends itself to making this comparison. I gauge it by looking at the last car in line, then I can see when that car rolls away (past the windows on one side of the restaurant). I judge who pulls away with their food first, me (at the counter) or the car (in the drive-through). By my admittedly un-scientific and anecdotal “evidence”, it appears that the drive-through customers are served much more quickly than lobby customers. There can be two in line inside and six cars in the drive-through, but I swear I see that sixth car pulling away the same time I’m getting my food at the counter.

Which made me think: what would account for this apparent discrepancy? I concluded that if service time at the drive-through is scrutinized, timed, calculated, regulated, and recorded, but service time in the lobby is not, that would explain why the manager and crew devote more time to serving the drive-through. (Literally, their jobs might depend on it.)

So… is there any validity to my observations? My conclusion? If so, or if not, why so or why not?

Many thanks.

Clarification - there’s one “cash register” window and one “get your food at” window in the drive-through, and one cash register open in the lobby. I count each as one register, one line. Thus I think I’m making a valid, one-to-one, comparison.

My book on “Rules of Thumb” says to head inside when there are 3 or more cars ahead of you in line.

This does not apply during crush times, when I’ve found that the drive-thru is slightly faster.

There is a lot of discrimination against walk-up customers. They don’t seem to care HOW long it takes to get your order, but if you drive up, the service is almost instantaneous. It’s also pretty BS the way that many places which claim to be 24 hours will ONLY have the drive-up open late night, which means if you don’t own a car (and I’m talking about places in NYC, so this isn’t even that unreasonable), they will refuse to serve you at all.

I think it depends on the time of day.

If I’m going at breakfast time, I always walk in. Hardly anyone is in the place and the drive-through is always packed.

At lunch I’ll do the drive through, because inside is packed, too, but the metrics favor the drive through.

In my experience (as a customer–I’ve never worked in fast food), if a food item is completed by the kitchen that has been ordered by a drive-thru customer and a lobby customer, the drive-thru gets it. Also, the kitchen seems to prioritize orders from the drive-thru.

I once was the only customer inside a Taco Bell that had a busy drive-thru, and my food took about 45 minutes to get to me.

I like to grumble about businesses that seem to think that if you don’t give a quarter of your income to an oil company, they don’t want you as a customer. But I think the real reason for this is that cars in the drive-thru take up a lot of space, so a long line there looks a lot worse than a busy lobby. So that line, being seen from the street, is more likely to drive away (heh) potential customers.

I used to frequent a Mexican drive-through/walk-up place that typically had 6 to 10 cars in the drive through at 2AM (“closing time”). My buddies and I quickly realized that it was faster to park, order at the window, and wait for your food there, then to suffer the line in the drive-through. In fact, I often saw only 3-4 cars leave the place with food in the 10 minutes it took to get our food.

This is a special circumstance, however. Every chain fast food joint has always been faster in the drive through, even with excruciatingly long lines.

Something that contributes to the longer drive-through line apparently going faster is the time it takes you to get inside to the shorter line. It only takes a few seconds to pull into the drive-through queue when you’re sitting in your car deciding which to go for. If you walk in you’ve got to spot a parking spot, drive to it, manuever into it, shut off the car, unbuckle, get out, make sure you have your wallet, walk to the door, go into the building, and THEN you’re in line; by that time 2-3 additional cars could have pulled into the drive-through line.

I’ve also used your method, take note of the last car in the drive-thru lane before walking in. Most recently at Starbucks on busy mornings.
Typically if the drive-thru line is 4 deep or more I am better off going inside since I am in my car again and leaving the parking lot before car #4 has been served.

***My question is – have they done the same thing with walk-in customers? If so… how? ***

As to this question, it is almost a certainty that an enterprise like McDonald’s has at some point performed the analytical work. The technique is called queueing theory. You can estimate about how long a customer has been in line or stayed in your restaurant by sampling the number of customers who are there and their arrival rates at different times of the day. At the very least this will help decide on staffing and space needs. Of course, since each franchise owner runs their own operation, that does not mean that corporate suggestions are necessarily followed in the restaurants.

I never EVER use the drive through anymore. It has ALWAYS been faster for me to go inside - and the chances of my order being correct go up exponentially.

Is any of this affected by the growing trend, at larger chains in busier locations, for the drive-thru communication to be handled by somebody offsite? In other words, when you pull up to the board, the person who greets you through the speaker isn’t in the building, but is in, essentially, a centralized call center where orders for all the area branches are taken; they key your order, which is relayed via computer back to the restaurant for fulfillment. Seems like it wouldn’t make a lot of difference in terms of delivery time, but they have to be doing it for a reason.

I did plenty of mystery shopping for McD and BK. For walk-in customers the clock starts when you stand at the end of the line.

My personal experience, and this is always in car-centric zones, is that parking and entering is always faster than driving through. This by using your method of seeing whether the car BEHIND the last car on the queue when I arrived leaves before I do.

A lot of them work from home. The system is fairly easy to set up. There are a few advantages to this setup:
[li]Happier, therefore more productive[/li][li]Don’t present safety risks, and require less training[/li][li]Don’t often miss work[/li][li]No rent or management required, as in a call center setting[/li][/ul]

My experience is that banks work very differently than this. Often, a single teller splits his/her time trying to service both a drive-up and walk-in customer. I rarely use the drive-up at the bank any more, even when there’s no line at all.

25 years ago at Wendys where I worked the goal during lunch was 30 seconds to get your food once you ordered (if you walked in.) Normally the goal was met. Can’t rememer a goal for drive through. I don’t think the walk in goal is that fast now.

I’ve never worked specifically in food service, but I did work in a movie theater and I can’t imagine you could possibly determine which could be faster because there are just too many variables: is there a new person being trained at one of the registers? Is someone waiting for change? (“My register needs quarters!”) Is someone being logged out for their break? Is someone inside making a huge order for his whole office? Is one car in the drivethru full of little kids making special orders? (“Chicken nuggets - rings, not fries, Cheeseburger - no meat, Hamburger - no mustard”) Did one of the drivethru cars drop their drink between the windows so it has to be remade and then have to fish an extra 15 cents out of their car seats because they wanted a pack of honey mustard?

For what it’s worth, places where you fix your own drink inside are super fast because that’s one less step the staff has to handle. Sometimes at Jack in the Box they’re serving up my food before I’ve even got half my ice in my cup. I’m actually leery of things being served too fast. I DO want them to be cooked!

I discussed something like this in an IMHO thread with what I call the “asshole in a suit” which is the efficiency experts that pressures the kitchen to get the food out as fast as possible that invariably results in undercooked and/or raw food. This individual is often summoned from the depths of Hell whenever management deems in store/walk-up customers are taking too long to be served, so yes, it is being studied very carefully. The logic has always been that if you are in your car and are in line, but have not ordered, you are more likely to drive away. That’s one of the reasons places like In N’ Out Burger have the guys outside that walk up to your car even when it’s 15 cars deep, because once you place your order and pay, you’re not going to drive away no matter how long it takes to get the food.

Once you’re inside and have parked, walked in, and stood there, if it takes 10 extra minutes, you’re less likely to walk away unless a competing place is literally right next door, which they usually aren’t. Even a walk across a parking lot to the competition is amazingly effective at getting you to put up with the wait because you are ‘committed’ at that point. My Operations and Service Management courses in business school focused very heavily on this concept.

I haven’t worked in fast food, but I believe that most of the major franchises time the drive thru, and stores can be penalized for having too-long times. I don’t know if they also apply this to walk-in customers.

They certainly do. As I said, I did mystery shopping, which is one of their ways to measure performance. On every visit I had to test both walk-in and drive-through (a stupid thing that always blew my cover) on the same visit to compare the same crew on the same circumstances.

Walk-ins are just as valuable as customers as drive-through customers and are studied and measured in much the same ways.