Wendy’s drive-thru lanes struggle, while Chick-fil-A has fastest service, report says

An employee delivers his order to a customer in the drive-thru of a Wendy’s fast food restaurant in Pinole, Calif., on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Wendy’s is often credited with pioneering drive-thru orders, but the burger chain’s drive-thru accuracy and customer satisfaction scores have lagged rivals this year, according to a news report. study.

The study published on Tuesday comes after drive-thru lanes became even more of a key sales driver for the fast-food industry at the start of the Covid pandemic, when many restaurants closed their dining rooms and customers felt safer inside their car.

The shift to drive-thru has put pressure on fast-food chains, which are still scrambling to bring service back to pre-pandemic speeds. This year, the average total time spent in the drive-thru lane was 6 minutes and 13 seconds, according to Intouch Insight’s annual drive-thru study. That’s about 10 seconds faster than last year, but still about 45 seconds slower than the 2019 average.

Wendy’s lagging performance comes even though founder Dave Thomas helped popularize drive-thru windows by building a pickup window as part of the chain’s second restaurant in 1970. The concept has since become a staple of the fast food industry, with drive-thru orders accounting for around two-thirds of sales. Many chains like Taco Bell and Burger King are building restaurants with two or even three lanes of drive-thru, and McDonald’s and Panera Bread are among the companies testing drive-thru automation.

The Intouch Insight study was based on visits to more than 1,500 locations of Arby’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Chick-fil-A, Dunkin’, Hardee’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Wendy’s. Mystery shoppers ordered from drive-thru lanes at different times from June to July.

Wendy’s had the lowest order accuracy and customer satisfaction scores of the chains surveyed, with only 79% of drive-thru orders executed correctly. McDonald’s and Arby’s had the best accuracy rates with 89% correct orders. Wendy’s achieved an 82% customer satisfaction score, while Carl’s Jr. and Chick-fil-A shared first place with 95% satisfaction.

Wendy’s relatively low customer satisfaction scores likely contribute to her recent financial performance, Evercore ISI analyst David Palmer wrote in a research note. In the second quarter, the hamburger chain reported U.S. same-store sales growth of 2.3%, below expectations.

A representative for Wendy’s did not immediately return a CNBC request for comment.

For the third year in a row, Chick-fil-A had the fastest time considering the number of cars in line, while McDonald’s took second place. But Chick-fil-A also had the longest queues, with an average of 4.74 cars waiting for their orders. This meant he had the longest average total time spent in the drive-thru lane despite serving relatively quickly. Yum Brands’ Taco Bell slipped from fifth to third place this year, while Wendy’s slipped to sixth place, according to a CNBC analysis of the data.

Wendy’s drive-thru speed deteriorated the most among the channels studied. It had an average service time of 4 minutes and 35 seconds, 20% more than in 2019, according to an independent analysis by Palmer of Evercore. Other chains have almost maintained their pre-pandemic speed of service. For example, Chick-fil-A’s top-performing service time of 5 minutes and 25 seconds was only 1% slower despite a 27% increase in sales per restaurant in the same time, wrote Palmer in a research note.

Chick-fil-A also took the top spot for other metrics. Its employees were rated the friendliest, and it tied with Taco Bell as the chain with the best food quality, meaning the food tasted as expected.

Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru lanes and reputation for customer service have helped fuel the chicken chain’s sales growth in recent years, despite controversy over donations to anti-LGBTQ groups. In 2018, it became the third-largest restaurant chain in the United States by sales, behind McDonald’s and Starbucks. The private chain reported $16.67 billion in systemwide sales for 2021, according to franchise disclosure documents.

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