Wait times in the drive-thru lines are getting slower, according to QSR’s annual Drive-Thru Study, which launched this week and says drive-thru speed of service in 2019 was 20 seconds longer than in 2018.

The study actually covers a number of different areas of drive-thru performance, from customer service to order accuracy to which chains are installing digital menu boards. But the continued lag in speed of service stuck out this year.

In 2019, the average time a customer spent in the drive-thru — from speaker to order window — was 255 seconds. To put that number in context, the average time from speaker to order window in 1999 was roughly 181 seconds, according to data from previous QSR Drive-Thru studies. That number dipped up and down over the next decade before climbing to 226.30 seconds in 2016. It’s gone steadily upward ever since.

What’s with the wait?

One reason is menus. The QSR 2019 study notes that “more complex menus” contributed to slowdown in order accuracy, which fell just over 5 percentage points compared to 2018. As the study says, “more intricate menus touted by brands like Taco Bell and Arby’s proved to be a stiffer challenge for employees working to deliver complicated orders at top drive-thru speed.”

Along with those larger menus come more complicated food items, like Taco Bell’s now-retired XXL Grilled Stuft Burrito, the making of which adds more time to the drive-thru process. Even a latte, which isn’t an inherently complicated drink, takes more seconds to make than pouring a regular cup of coffee. Some chains brands have gotten hip to this problem and trimmed down their bloated menus. Even so, it ain’t 1985, when you could count McDonald’s burger offerings on one hand, and we’re not likely to return to that level of simplicity.

Mobile orders also contributed to the slowdown in drive-thru times, and with “lanes possibly getting more crowded with not only drive-thru customers but also those picking up mobile orders, it’s going to be difficult for brands to shave off seconds moving forward.”

Some are trying to knock out those extra seconds, most notably Dunkin’, which started building stores with dedicated drive-thru lanes for mobile-order customers in 2018. Fellow donut-peddler Krispy Kreme is doing the same as it revamps its locations for the digital age. In Australia, KFC is piloting a drive-thru-only store heavily focused on digital transactions and testing out new concepts to speed up wait times.

But mobile orders aren’t going away, and, as I mentioned earlier, menus aren’t about to get smaller, so what’s a restaurant chain to do?

Implement AI.

McDonald’s made that much clear when it acquired Dynamic Yield in March and subsequently rolled out the latter’s AI tech to hundreds of locations. Right now, that particular implementation of the tech is aimed at things like order accuracy and quickly upselling items to customers. Where it could make a massive impact, though, is in making restaurants more predictive.

Dynamic Yield-enabled menu displays at McDonald’s drive-thrus can show customers food based on data like the time of day, the weather, and trending menu items. Narrowing down someone’s food selection based on those factors could help the average customer parse through a massive menu and get through the selection process faster, shaving seconds off the time between ordering and collecting the meal. As McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook noted on an earnings call in April, “. . . using the data collected based on current restaurant traffic at the drive-thru, the technology will begin to suggest items that can make peak times easier on our restaurant operations and crew.”

It could also help predict future demand. If the system can tell by data that it’s 80 degrees outside, sunny, and a football game is about to let out nearby, the restaurant can prepare itself with extra staffing ahead of time to move a potentially bigger rush through the line faster.

Meanwhile, companies like 5Thru and Valyant AI are implementing things like license plate recognition and conversational AI to speed up the order and pay process in the drive thru. 5Thru, in particular, is also working with car manufacturers to add voice-order capability in the vehicle, sort of like Domino’s is doing with Chevrolet and other car companies.

All of these efforts are aimed at automating parts, or eventually all, of the drive-thru process to keep chains competitive in what’s become a very oversaturated fast food market. This time next year, we’ll have a better idea of how far towards that goal Dynamic Yield can get McDonald’s, and AI in general can get the industry. If the seconds spend in line start to drop, we could one day offer a 2020-sized menu much faster, so restaurant operators can party like it’s 1999.

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