How Fast Food Chains Are Becoming Even Faster

Between the number of chains and the breadth of their menus, fast food can cater to any culinary whim. But in some respects, both big industry players and those struggling to survive in the cutthroat burger biz are shifting to a mindset that less is more and speed is king.

At McDonald’s, a spate of recent changes aims to turn around some of the slowest drive-thru times in the business. According to restaurant industry publication QSR, the average drive-thru time at McDonald’s went from 208.16 seconds in 2016 to 273.29 seconds in 2018, falling from fifth to tenth in the speed rankings over that time. Go even further back to 2012, and that time was 188.83 seconds. For context, the 2018 average across fast food drive-thrus was 234.08 seconds.

Despite recently announcing the addition of some international favorites, McDonald’s is in part adopting a less-is-more strategy to speed things up: gone are its Signature Crafted burgers. The late-night menu has been stripped down to focus on popular items like Big Macs and breakfast. And speaking of breakfast, individual McDonald’s franchises now have the ability to determine exactly what “all day” and “breakfast” means after 10:30 a.m.

In speaking with QSR, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook says those moves were driven by one core question: “is it really worthy of that complexity or can we offer a better experience for customers by plussing up our core traditional menu?”

Beyond addition by subtraction, McDonald’s invested $300 million in Dynamic
Yield: . QSR says McDonald’s hopes its acquisition will provide a better, more personal experience at the drive thru by creating algorithmically determined menu displays that suggest items based on factors like the weather, time of day, how busy the Mcdonald’s is, and what items are trending at a given location.

From the sound of it, there’s a chance that tech will eventually be used to tackle broader logistical challenges within McDonald’s locations as well. “When our technology ecosystem is linked, it will provide a seamless ordering experience for our customers,” Easterbrook said, noting that McDonald’s “will leverage our size and scale to take advantage of being one of the first brick-and-mortar companies to integrate decision logic into the customer ordering process.”

But McDonald’s isn’t the only fast food chain trying to speed things up. Recently on the verge of selling the company, Jack in the Box CEO and chairman Lenny Comma has assessed the company’s options and decided that success lies in pushing the pace.

“We’ve been our own worst enemy when it comes to speed of service as the breadth of our ever changing menu has added complexity and prep times in our kitchen,” he told Nation’s Restaurant News, stating that the goal is “to reduce this complexity while also improving consistency and accuracy.”

By the end of 2021, Comma hopes Jack in the Box can get food into your car one minute faster, which would place their order time at just under 193 seconds based on QSR’s 2018 data. Given that Comma says roughly 70% of the chain’s sales come from the drive thru, that’ll go a long way.

So why is this shift towards speed happening? With more competition out there, getting customers through the drive through queue faster can make a real difference when it comes to marginal revenue. Spending time and money on ingredients that aren’t top sellers and that slow down service when they’re ordered isn’t a winning strategy.

Conversely, does this mean that fast food chains looking to broaden their offerings or cater to vegans via Impossible burgers are moving in the wrong direction? Given that Burger King actually topped the list of fastest drive thrus, who knows. But if your favorite niche fast food item suddenly disappears from the drive-thru menu one day, know that it has been sacrificed at the altar of speed.


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