The Ten Commandments of Drive-Thru Etiquette

Having worked far too long in the food service industry, i’ve seen my share of people who seem to have absolutely no idea how drive-thru restaurants work. I’ve suffered no end of heartache and aggravation from people who can’t seem to grasp what should be blatantly obvious, and i’ve finally come to the conclusion that what the world needs is a simple guide to the thou shalts and thou shalt nots of the process. So here it is - a guide to the uninformed and a pitting of the clueless.

1) An there beith a preview board, thou shalt use it. Many drive-thrus now have two separate menu boards - one with the attached speaker, and a second menu one car-length behind the speaker. This is known as a “preview board” because the customer can look it over before advancing to the speaker and starting the restaurant’s speed-of-service timer. If you don’t know what you want, USE this board. Don’t drive past it straight to the speaker, ask the clerk to “gimme a second”, and then spend two or three minutes staring at it while the speed-of-service time gets higher and higher.

2)Thou shalt not shout “Hello?” or honk thy horn if there is a delay at the speaker. Just because the clerk isn’t ready to take your order the second you pull up doesn’t mean they’ve taken off their headset, clocked out, and gone home. Shouting “Hello?” or honking your horn will not make whatever the clerk is working on go away and it WON’T get your order taken any faster - it only aggravates the clerk and potentially deafen them when they get a 110-decibal blast in the speaker strapped directly onto their ear.

3) Thou shalt not ask the clerk questions that could be answered by reading the menu. How much does the chicken sandwich cost? What comes on the TripleMax Superburger Deluxe? This is what the menu is FOR. It’s the big thing right in front of you with all the words and numbers on it, not to mention the great big pictures where each item has been carefully posed to display each of its ingredients in larger-than-life detail. Use it.

4) Thou shalt NOT add to thy order at the window. Doing this requires the clerk to go back in and change your order (which at many restaurants requires a manager’s approval to void part or all of the order), delays us getting your order out while we make whatever you decided you just couldn’t live without during the lengthy 20’ drive from the speaker to the window, and delays everyone behind you getting what they want as well. Just don’t do it.

5) If there is a line at the window, thou shalt start counting thy money before reaching it. We tell you what your total is at the speaker. Most restaurants also have video screens that show your total in big numbers. There is no reason for you to not know your total before you leave the speaker. If there’s a car ahead of you at the window, there is no reason for you not to start counting out your money before you get there. Reaching the window after a three-minute wait and THEN deciding to start counting out the $37 in nickels you intend to pay me with is just lazy.

6) Thou shalt use actual numbers when ordering a quantity greater than one. I don’t know how many “a couple”, “a bunch”, “a lot”, or “a shitload” of hamburgers is. I never learned those numbers in kindergarten. If you ask me for such a quantity, I will ask you to be more specific. The same goes for sauces. Our default is to give you one package of sauce for each item that requires it. If you ask me for a specific larger number I will give you that many, but if you ask me for “a bunch” or “a lot” I will give you two packages for each item. If you ask me for “a shitload” I may ask you not to come back to my store.

7) Thou shalt NOT use curse words into the drive-thru speaker. This one follows from the Sixth Commandment. The speaker you’re talking into is connected to a loudspeaker which is audible to everyone in the kitchen and, often, to everyone in the lobby as well. This is a family business and more often than not there are children dining in our lobby. It is not appropriate for you to pull up to my speaker and start using profanity towards me, let alone my staff and customers. An idle slip of the tongue may be excused, but do it again and you’ll be asked to leave.

8) Thou shalt not order another restaurant’s menu items from us. We don’t sell Big Macs here. We don’t sell Whoppers here. We don’t sell McChickens, Biggie Fries, Frosties, Grillburgers, McFlurries, McNuggets, Chicken Fries, Crossainwiches, McMuffins, McGriddles, or anything else that starts with “Mc” for that matter. You cannot Super-Size, King Size, or Biggie-Size our combos. We carry Coke, not Pepsi. We can’t give you fry sauce, onion ring sauce, or Horsey sauce. Corellary: Thou shalt not order the item we carried for about a month two years ago and act shocked that we can’t make it for you. We don’t even carry the ingredients for that anymore. No, not even if you ask nicely.

9) Thou shalt make sure you have cash or a credit card BEFORE thou order. Think hard for just a second, buddy - have you EVER heard of a drive-thru restaurant taking checks? I didn’t think so. Make sure you have the ability to pay for your order BEFORE you order it. Pulling up to the window and then “discovering” that you forgot your wallet won’t earn you any sympathy from those of us who just busted our asses to make your order and now have to throw it all out. And no, it WON’T get you any free food, either.

10) Thou shalt not, not, NOT, EVER, ask the clerk to “hook you up”. This is a business, not a charity. You want free food? Go to the food bank downtown. We’re in business to make money, not feed your broke ass. I don’t even know you. Why would I risk my job by giving away free food to a complete stranger? No, not if you give me a puff off your peace pipe. No, not if your girlfriend shows me her tits (and what kind of girl flashes a complete stranger for a 99-cent sandwich anyway?) No, not if you’re really good buddies with the manager or the area coach or Sally in Accounting, because right here and right now I AM the manager and i’ve never seen you before in my life.

Unbelievers, repent your sins and be saved. Anybody else got any commandments they’d like to throw in before I break out the chisel?

I am an acolyte of the drive-thru window, having spent two summers doing that many years ago. I wish to offer a mild correction to this above – in Minneapolis, some drive-thru restaurants still do take checks, and those that ceased, only ceased a few short years ago.

I would add:

11) Don’t walk up to the drive-thru window. The sign claims it’s for your safety, but it’s for mine. If you’re in your car, ideally wrapped snugly in a seat belt, you can’t reach through the window to get to the register, food, or me. I like it that way. You stay in your car no matter how important you think you are. This goes double if bars have just closed and you’re stumbling around drunk. Get outta the drive-thru lane.

Can’t agree with you there. It’s the restaurant’s job to make sure that the customer is acknowledged right away. If the restaurant wants to make this be via an automated voice, fine; but if I am a customer and I drive up to the speaker and nothing happens, I have no way of knowing whether the speaker is broken, whether the employees are all smoking hash down in the deep freezer, or whether the employee is a split-second away from answering the speaker.

I don’t honk, but I don’t blame those who do. It’s the restaurant’s obligation to reassure the customer, not the customer’s obligation to hope that the technology is working.

3) Thou shalt not ask the clerk questions that could be answered by reading the menu. How much does the chicken sandwich cost? What comes on the TripleMax Superburger Deluxe? This is what the menu is FOR.

You know the menu backwards and forwards, right? I, the customer, do not. It’s a more efficient use of my time to ask questions if I’m having trouble finding the answers on the often bizarrely-laid-out menu.

Of course, if your restaurant orders the menu in alphabetical order, then never mind; but I’ve never seen that.

That’s kinda dumb of you, I think. If I ask for a lot of ketchup, you either need to give me far more than I could want (e.g., a dozen packets per order of fries), OR, preferably, you need to say, “Will 6 packets be enough?” Instead of making a deliberately stingy guess as to what I need, you ought to be asking the questions you need to ask so as to get the order right.

Yes, questions and clarifications are allowed via the speaker. See item 3.

Once more, you’re the expert at fast food. I’m an expert at database design. I don’t expect you to know about normalizing data, and you ought not expect me to be an expert on what crappy names your restaurant applies to your crappy food. If I get the name wrong–if I order Pepsi instead of Coke–you need to ask, “Is Coke okay?” If I order a Big Mac instead of a Whopper, you need to ask, “Is a Whopper okay?” It’s your job to be the expert here. That’s why you make the big bucks.

Otherwise, I agree :).


Perhaps some clarification is in order on this point. I’m not talking about failing to get a greeting - if you pull up to the speaker and nobody says hello, that’s our fault, not yours. However, the clerk is not always ready to take an order when they greet you - they may be talking to a customer at the window, dropping fryer items because the restaurant is short-staffed that day, or doing something else that prevents them from ringing you up at that immediate second, in which case the standard greeting is “Welcome, I will be with you in just a moment”. What i’m talking about is the people for whom this just isn’t good enough, who feel obligated to start shouting or honking their horn if they don’t hear a human voice every five seconds to assure them that the restaurant hasn’t closed and the staff gone home in the time they were wondering whether a Bacon SuperBurger Deluxe with Cheesy Fries would be OK for their diet as long as they had a Diet Coke for the drink. THAT’S what the Second Commandment is targeted at.

I agree with all of your commandments, but I would bet that some people who ask these questions either can’t read or can’t read well. When I worked at a record store, we had a few regular customers who always asked us to read track listings for them. One of my coworkers had an uncle who was a lifelong illiterate, and she noticed some patterns that suggested these customers weren’t really forgetting their glasses.

Walgreens driveup mini-rant here:

(12) Don’t continue to talk on the fucking CELL phone while I’m attempting to find out what it is you WANT from us. Tell Betty or Bobby or Biddy to fucking HOLD while you tell me what it is you WANT.

And DON’T keep yakking to them while you’re simultaneously talking to ME, 'kay, Brenda? Life would be so much simpler, for Betty and Bobby and Biddy, too, if we didn’t all have to cope with conversations that go, “Hi, can I help you?/Just a minute/No, not you, I’m at the Walgreens driveup/Just a minute/Can I get this refilled?/You don’t have any more refills on this, we’ll have to call the doctor/Just a minute/How can it not have any more refills?/No, not you, I’m still at Walgreens/Just a minute”…

My favorite is the lady who flips open her phone and initiates a conversation while I’m getting her change. You cannot wait even 20 more seconds before you just gotta talk to Betty? And what’s so important to tell her? “Hi!..Well, I’m at the Walgreens driveup…” If you waited another 20 seconds, you could tell her, “Hi!..I’m driving away from the Walgreens driveup…” And if you waited another 20 seconds, you could tell her, “Hi! I’m in front of Panera Bread…”
And as long as I’m here:

(13) Try to understand that Walgreens is not McDonalds. It takes us about 20 minutes to process your prescription, and that’s when we’re not busy–we don’t keep your Prozac or Lipitor made up ahead of time in 30-pill batches like Big Macs. You come inside, it takes 20 minutes, you come through the driveup, it still takes 20 minutes. And no, you can’t just sit there and wait, because there are other PEOPLE behind you–hello? And when I get back on the mike and ask you to pull around, don’t glare at me because you hadda roll your window down and I interrupted your phone conversation with Betty or Bobby or Biddy.

(14) Thou shalt not honk thy horn 10 seconds after thou drivest up. I KNOW you’re there, Fred, I can SEE you through the large industrial-size plate glass window, 'kay? You can see me, I can see you, but I’m BUSY, Fred, 'kay? I’m busy waiting on OTHER customers (see the way I’m handing them pills and stuff? That’s how you can tell I’m waiting on them), and I’ll be with ya in a minute, trust me.

Ah, okay then, the commandment is just and proper. Sorry about that!


#12 Thou shalt always informeth cashier of coupons and other discounts before pulling up to the window.

One of my greatest pet peeves of all from my fast food days was when customers would present coupons or inform me that they are senior citizens and are thus entitled to a 10% discount. In these cases the old ticket had to be voided out and re-entered, driving up speed-of-service times.

This also goes for dine-in customers as it still delays our work and keeps the people in line behind you waiting even longer.

#13. Thou shalt turneth off thy cell phone!

Please, either tell the other person to hold on for a moment if you are already on a call, or just don’t take the call while you give the cashier money and receive your order. It’s very rude and inconsiderate to prattle on while the cashier has to wait for you to finish your conversation. The cashier may need to ask you questions. When I worked in fast food the year was 1994. Cell phones were just starting to become more commonplace, but not nearly as common as they are now, so I can only imagine how much worse the problem is today.

You work at Taco Bell don’t you? I mean, you’re obviously open late because of the remark about the bars closing. And you don’t mention anything about tacos, burritos, or hot sauces. Seriously, you’ve had women flash you to get free drive through? Dudes have offered you drugs in lieu of payment? Got to be Taco Hell.

I’ve never worked in fast food but I’ve eaten at enough to have the gut to show for it (lawsuit pending), so may I please add

If thou hast an unusual order, one that is far larger than normal (as in for an entire football team), or yea is even just more complicated than normal [cut the burger in half with mustard on the left side and mayonaisse on the right and a pickle on top of the bun] or requires several different payors, PLEASE go inside.

Fast food in general is for people who don’t have time to spend 30 minutes waiting for their food. The Drive Thru is for people who have even less time. It drives me nuts when I get behind some totally unconcerned nimrod who thinks nothing of ordering 30 hamburgers (for thirty-two different payers) and taking 20 minutes at the window while traffic backs up into the next county.

Of course I also don’t understand people who when they can see there are two-dozed queued cars at the drive thru and maybe three cars in the parking lot can’t figure out it’ll be quicker to go inside.
Do people really ask you for free food?

I don’t like parking at the preview menu so cars get backed up behind me while I decide. I don’t eat fast food often enough to know exactly what I want, and drive-thru menus are usually confusing. Frankly, your speed-of-service time is not my concern.

Well then, they’ll get backed up behind you as you’re placing your order. Ignoring the preview window doesn’t save time at all.

Then go inside if you want to avoid the drive through menu.

It should be, especially when other customers are waiting.

Thou shall not expect my business if there are no cars in front of me and no cars parked in the lot and I am told to “wait a minute” by the person on the other end of the speaker.

No, it’s not Taco Bell, but we are open 24 hours and we do get our fair share of people who stumble into their car after last call and decide that we’ve got just what they need. More often than not they’ve spent everything they had at the bar, which precipitates the kind of “bargaining sessions” you just mentioned.

So you park at the speaker and let cars back up behind you? Same twit, different pile.

Perhaps the drive-thru is not so much for you, yes? You go inside.

You’re… you’re… KIDDING… right?
There’s a two-story-high MENU right there. On this menu are listed the names and costs of the products offered.
How can you be so good at database design when you can’t even read?

Uh, at least then both of us can read the menus. I’ll gladly read the preview menu if there is a car ahead of me.

Frankly, your inability to understand big color pictures and three-inch letters on an outdoor menu aren’t my concern. Park your fucking car and go inside.

Not exactly the same thing (my comment is more for when there is no line of cars), but here it is anyway. If nobody is ahead of me in the drive-thru lane, the order-taker usually tells me to drive up to the window after placing my order at the speaker. There I stop, put the transmission in Park, undo my seat belt, take my feet off the pedals so I can roll my hips around to get my wallet from my back pocket, then pull a bill out to pay for my meal. All the while, it seems, the clerk at the window is rolling her eyes, with her hand out, with the attitude of “I’m waiting, Bozo. Hurry it up, willya?”

Gee, I’m sorry kid. I haven’t yet had the chance to get my money (no line of cars, thus no stop-and-wait and subsequent chance to do this before getting to the window), but I’ll yell you what: next time, I’ll make damn sure that I take care of this before I get to your window. Y’know, like when I’m driving down the freeway. I can certainly see that it would make your life so much easier if I drove my car while squirming around in my seat, taking my eyes off the road, and rooting around in my wallet. :rolleyes:

Note that I am not accusing the OP and his or her co-workers of this attitude, but as long as we’re doing little drive-thru rants here, I thought I’d add it. I think a little patience and understanding on both sides would go a long way. Thankfully, I seem to have complied with most of the OP’s commandments; I’ll be careful in future with the rest.

I also have to ask, though: what’s with the speakers that sound as if they came secondhand from a closed-out drive-in movie? Not all fast-food drive-thrus have these–some places have really good quality speakers, actually–but some are crackly, staticky, and hard to hear. Anybody else find this?

If I pull up to the regular menu, then someone behind me can be reading the preview boards and figuring out what they want. I get served at the same time I would have anyway, the person behind me gets out sooner, and if your stats are adversely affected, then the stats are wrong.