Life in the Drive Thru Lane

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

Despite my interest in health and fitness, my lifestyle (if you can call how I live a “style”) has led me to spend much more time going through “drive-thrus” to get my meals. I’ve been in them at all meal times, late nights, and just in the middle of the day. So, naturally, I consider myself an expert on what to expect at a drive-thru and I have definite opinions on who does them best – or worst!

By the way, before we get started, I feel obligated to point out that you should never eat and drive at the same time. Especially in heavy city traffic. I know we all do, but that doesn’t make it right.

That being said, here are my top hints and some rules of etiquette when ordering at the drive-thru:

  • If you do choose to eat and drive carefully consider what you are ordering. Some sandwiches are sloppier than others.
  • Know what you want to order before you enter the drive-thru lane! Others are waiting behind you.
  • Stay close to the vehicle in front of you. There’s no need to maintain a car length or more between you and the vehicle ahead. A yard (meter)or so will suffice.
  • Pay attention and move carefully forward when it is your turn to do so. This isn’t the time to check your messages, texts, Facebook, etc.
  • Speak loudly and clearly into the speaker. Between ambient background noise and other factors it’s easy to be misunderstood.
  • Always ask for napkins. These are the most often neglected item included in your bag. Almost any sandwich, especially burgers and chicken, will drip some juices or condiments. Not to mention that the greaseless french fry hasn’t been invented yet.
  • No one seems to just toss in condiments like ketchup (catsup) anymore. Remember to ask for these, too.
  • Most chains accept debit/credit cards now. Consider using one instead of cash. Otherwise, use your time in line to prepare your form of payment.
  • Always check your order before you pull away from the window. This is the point where it’s okay to take a few extra seconds – don’t feel pressured to move until you know that everything is correct. There’s nothing worse than getting a couple miles down the road and finding out that something was forgotten or worse you actually got someone else’s food.

So, in no particular order, my observations…

McDonald’s: according to Wikipedia the ubiquitous hamburger chain did not install its first drive-thru window until 1975. But today these windows account for 70% of sales (pre-pandemic). In many ways McDonald’s seems to be one of the main drivers of innovation with the drive-thru window. Going from that single window in 1975 to multi-lane, multi-window ordering systems today. Based on my observations they are also the leaders in digital signage which I’m sure has greatly enhanced their ability to make changes on the fly for out of stock items, specials and saves the time of someone going out to change the sign two or more times a day for different menus. I also appreciate that your order displays on the screen so you at least know that everything was entered into their POS properly. In general, service at McDonald’s drive-thru’s is pretty good and quick. They do miss the mark on occasion, most often on soft drink orders. I have not found the best way to order a Diet Coke and always get a Diet Coke. Maybe they can’t grasp the idea that a guy who is ordering a double-quarter pounder with cheese and large fries really wants a Diet Coke – but it is my drink of choice. I also find it ironic that their simplified menu during the pandemic actually seems to cause more confusion among their staff. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and order a “2b” and see what happens. I bet you get asked to repeat the order or clarify what you want. Hint: Big Macs, though delicious, are sloppy to try and eat while driving.

Burger King: Oddly enough, at least in my region, Burger King installed drive-thru windows and when they needed a second window they built a little booth that a cashier would be posted in which is separate from the main building. Now this building is almost closed all the time and even when the second window (though technically I guess it’s the first window) is built into the restaurant it is usually closed. Hint: Whoppers, like the Big Mac, are often sloppy to try and eat in the car. The juices from the tomato mixes with the ketchup and the mayo and just drips everywhere.

Wendy’s: To my memory Wendy’s is the first Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) to use the drive-thru lane, or pick-up window as they call it, on a regular basis. So you would think that as early adopters of the practice that they would be the best at it. In general I think their performance is average. Somehow their fries always seem to come out a bit “soggy” from the pick-up window. Maybe they do from the counter too, but it’s been so long since I’ve gone inside, I just can’t remember. Hint: to try and limit the sloppiness of the Wendy’s hamburger order without the tomato. Not as good but less messy (see the Whopper above).

Photo by Caleb Oquendo on Pexels.com

Chick-Fil-A: Here’s the chain that has really adapted to the pandemic – at least in my area. They’ve turned the drive-thru into an entire outdoor operation. You are greeted by an over-friendly staff member, equipped with a computer tablet, who takes your order, confirms your order, and takes your payment. They often also tell you which car you are following in line. You are given a receipt at the next stop if you want one and then given your food at the end of the line. Orders are almost always correct (they do give me the occasional incorrect salad dressing) and they smile a lot. They do provide great service which partly explains their cult like following. Hint: their grilled chicken sandwiches tend to be the sloppiest. There’s no breading to soak of the juices.

Dunkin’ and Tim Horton’s: I think it’s a little difficult to order a doughnut when you can’t see what’s on the rack. But if you want a doughnut bad enough you find a way. I suppose some people order sandwiches and coffee at these two chains, too…weird.

Subway: Takes a little while to order because of the variety of options, but they seem to get my order right every time. Hint: loading your sub up with all the veggies may be “healthier,” but it makes it harder to eat.

Jimmy John’s: Not quite as “freaky fast” as advertised, but close.

Taco Bell: sorry Jimmy John’s, these guys are usually freaky fast in my experience. Hint: I find the Crunchwrap Supreme to be the least messy of their food choices.

Culver’s: Takes longer than most, but they also put a little hang tag on your car door handle so that you are properly identified when they bring out your order. Sometimes the simple ideas really work.

Steak & Shake: Avoid using the drive-thru. I know this sounds harsh and please don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the food at Steak & Shake, especially the shakes, but I have yet to spend less than a half an hour in one of their drive-thru lanes. Usually, it’s a longer wait. I don’t know what it is about their production line, or maybe they just see me coming, but they can’t seem to get food out fast enough. Please don’t tell me it’s because their “steak” burgers are made fresh – Wendy’s uses a fresh hamburger patty which is larger and seems to be able to get the food out in a reasonable amount of time. Maybe it’s because the shakes are made one at a time by hand. I don’t know, but I suspect it’s more of a staffing issue.

KFC: I’ll admit it, I don’t go through the KFC drive-thru often as I usually order from the counter when picking up a bucket of the Colonel’s original goodness. Hint: fried chicken doesn’t mix with driving, licking your fingers while driving can be distracting. They have a sandwich now so consider choosing that if you can’t stop to partake.

Checker’s/Rally’s : two entirely separate pick up lanes! Order from the driver’s side or the passenger side. How cool is that? Hint: the Big Buford, love the name, is the sloppiest burger on the menu.

Sonic: not sure why anyone would use the drive-thru lane at a restaurant built around the drive-in experience though they are one of the few chains with potato “tots.” But I’ve tried it. Average service and time.

Arby’s: Average service and time but, you guessed it, hint: avoid the gyro when driving. Very, very sloppy.

A&W, Carl’s Jr., Dairy Queen, Del Taco, Hardee’s, Jack-in-the-Box, In ‘N Out, Popeye’s, Whataburger, White Castle: I probably shouldn’t lump all these chains together, but in my experience these are the “journeymen” of fast food. Not too slow, but not very fast either. The orders are usually correct but the entire experience is what you would expect. Which isn’t bad. I will give a shout out to Whataburger’s fried lemon pie though. Worth the stop if you are in Texas.

I already shared my tips on how we as customers can have a better drive-thru experience, so let me close with my ideas on how the restaurant can improve customer service. Basically it boils down to three things:

Accuracy: especially important for venues with complicated menus. If you allow customization of your toppings (and everyone should) or even if you only have a choice between cheese or no cheese repeat the order back to the customer after they have completed it. Ideally, at the speaker and at the window(s).

Speed: difficult in these COVID times when drive-thru may be your only business and the line stretches out to the road. But if you have items that take 15 or more minutes to prepare your operation may not be cut out for the fast (food) lane. Re-examine your production or simplify your menu. Yes, your customers may miss a favorite item but they’ll appreciate the quick service (as in quick service restaurant) more.

Courtesy: I know that this is a challenge for everyone and I don’t know the answer to incentivizing staff to say “please and thank you” instead of “here you go” or worse yet, silence as the paper bag is being shoved out the window. But I can tell you that people go absolutely bonkers over the fact that the staff at Chik-Fil-A say “my pleasure.” To me that’s an indication that everyone else is getting it wrong.

So there you have it, my overall impressions from a lifetime of drive-thru living. Do you agree with my assessments or have I really missed the mark on some of these? I’d love to read your comments.

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr

Grumpy Old Men on Tour: Walt Disney World Day 3

NOTE: The events in this post and the following series all took place pre-COVID. Many of the rules and planning for a trip to Walt Disney World (WDW)have changed since my last trip. Be sure to do your own research as things change frequently right now at WDW and any destination in general.

The Animal Kingdom

After the long day at Hollywood Studios and the Magic Kingdom we took a more leisurely approach to this morning by sleeping in until almost 8:00 AM. After a shower and a quick guzzle of the Diet Coke left over from last night in my refillable insulated Star Wars souvenir tumbler (still cold!) we headed over to the food court to grab breakfast. We made sure to take our tumblers with us, of course.

I neglected to mention earlier that one of the first things we did after returning to the hotel after our first day was to purchase a refillable souvenir tumbler from the food court. We could choose the less expensive generic one of course, but we opted for the somewhat costlier (I can’t remember how much) Star Wars tumbler. These tumblers were good for unlimited refills at the Disney hotels – but not in the parks. However, it was worth taking them along in Bob’s back pack as we could refill them in the parks with water if needed. And they did do a good job of keeping the beverages hot or cold.

Today was planned to be a relatively slow day and our only fast passes were for the Animal Kingdom. High on our list was getting onto Flight of Passage in Pandora (the world of Avatar), the Kilimanjaro Safari, and one of my favorite coasters in the country – because of its theming – Expedition Everest! Little did I know as we boarded the bus to begin our ride to Animal Kingdom that Bob had a secret mission of his own in the works…(insert ominous music here).

For those who don’t know, Animal Kingdom is by area the largest park at Walt Disney World but it never feels that large to me. I think this is because much of the land is taken up by the Kilimanjaro Safari attraction and the other animal enclosures. It would be easy to say that this park was *ahem* inspired by Busch Gardens in Tampa. However, whereas Busch Gardens seems to have embraced its thrill ride side over the past several decades (do they still have the brewery in the middle of the park with free samples? That should tell you how long it’s been since I’ve visited Tampa) Animal Kingdom very much a zoo that happens to have some other attractions and shows inside it. Like Epcot, it is unlike any other Disney Park in the world. Some people claim it is a “half-day” park and I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever spent an entire day there before this trip. But if you like zoos you can certainly do it.

Expedition Everest and Bob’s Secret Mission Revealed

A shrine at Animal Kingdom which resembles the mountain of Expedition Everest
I love the detail in the parks at Walt Disney World. Notice how the peaks of the shrine match the peaks of the mountain.

Our first stop was Expedition Everest. As I said earlier this is one of my favorite rides because I’ve been fascinated since I was a kid with the idea of climbing Mount Everest (not going to happen – I’d probably die on the climb to base camp) and with the infamous Abominable Snowman, aka the Yeti, of the Himalayas. The queue line for the attraction does, in fact, take you through a museum of sorts dedicated to the history of the world’s most famous Cryptid. Well, top three at least. The ride itself is also well themed and though tame by most standards has enough twists, turns, and surprises to keep everyone on their toes. The only issue I had with the ride on this day is that somehow we were not in our ride picture. I’m not sure who the people are in our Memory Keeper photo but at least they seem to be having a good time.

“Okay,” Bob said as we got off the ride, “that’s over with. Which way to Dino-land?”

“Don’t you want to wander around Asia for a bit? We’ve got time until our next Fast Past and there’s several…”

“No,” Bob interrupted me, “we need to go find Donald’s Dino-Bash.”

Somehow other people got in our ride photo on Expedition Everest
I have no idea who these folks are but they sure are having a good time. I suspect Bob and I are in the back row.

“Why?” I asked.

“You’ll see,” he said.

So we headed off to Dinoland. Once there Bob started looking anxious. “Do you see Donald’s Dino-Bash?” he asked.

“No, but why are you so anxious to get there?” I replied.

“Because, he might be there.”

“He? You don’t mean?”

“Yes, him. Look there’s Launchpad!”

Sure enough in a little shelter stood Launchpad McQuack from Disney’s Duck Tales. And where there’s Launchpad…

“I see him! I see him!” and I swear Bob took off in a sprint. Sure enough just ahead of us was the Holy Grail of characters – at least for Bob – the richest duck in the world: Uncle Scrooge McDuck in his full adventuring attire. Bob was ecstatic and, as you can tell by the accompanying photo, I may have been less ecstatic at least on the outside. On the inside I was just a little shocked. Bob had done what I thought was impossible – he found Uncle Scrooge. Our day was made right there. But there was much more to do.

We were off to Pandora to scope it out before our fast passes to Avatar: Flight of Passage later in the day. Passage in my opinion is the single best attraction of any park anywhere. Along the way we bumped into another character, Kevin from Pixar’s Up! and even saw a trained bird demonstration. Once in Pandora I immediately got lost – as usual. The land isn’t that big, but the lushness of the foliage and the layout of the trails make it easy to get turned around. Especially when there’s a crowd. We eventually found the entrance to Flight of Passage.

After finding the entrance and memorizing how we got there, it was off to the other side of the park to take in the Kilimanjaro Safari. The queue line here, though fitting for the attraction, isn’t very entertaining despite TV monitors that give you an introduction to the wildlife you may see on your “safari.” But the ride through animal exhibit went well and our guide was knowledgeable and I think we saw all the animals we were supposed to see. Afterwards we walked the Gorilla Falls trail and saw more, you guessed it, animals.

We had lunch at Flame Tree BBQ. I’m sorry to say that this meal wasn’t up to the standards we had come to expect and I didn’t even take a picture of it (I at it all though). The view from our table looking over Discovery River was nice and relaxing. There was an odd “whooping” noise that I had trouble identifying which was very loud – then it occurred to me. We were hearing the Howler Monkeys doing their thing, no not that thing – the howling thing, from across the river. They sounded like they were at the table next to us they were so loud.

After lunch and looking at a few more animal exhibits we ran into Kevin again – man that bird gets around – and then made our way back to Pandora for our Fast Pass time.

Flight of Passage and Dinosaur

Floating mountains of Pandora
I didn’t care for the movie Avatar, but I have to admit that Disney did a great job creating Pandora in real life.

Even with the opening of Rise of the Resistance over in Hollywood Studios, the line for Flight of Passage is always long. Even with a Fast Pass you can expect to wait an hour or so. This line seemed even longer than usual but not because of the number of people in the line, it was because of the type of people in the line. Here’s where some of my grumpiness started to manifest itself. It seems that while we were at Walt Disney World there was some kind of international cheer squad competition or festival going on. So the parks were filled with lots and lots of cheerleaders. Now, I have nothing against cheerleaders in particular. I have many friends who were cheerleaders in the past, I enjoy joining in a rousing cheer at a football game, and so on. But one thing about groups of them that you can’t fail to notice is that they like to, well, cheer. A lot. Like for an hour and a half non-stop while standing in a well themed but enclosed space that really, really echoes. If you can’t imagine what that’s like then you have indeed lived a charmed life and should count your blessings.

Despite the wait, which was made easier because the good folks at Imagineering, bless them all, realized that they should put restrooms about half way through the queue. Every ride, every where with a line longer than an hour should have these. I still thoroughly enjoyed this attraction. It is a combination of Soarin’ and a ride simulator. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone but the immersion in the world of Avatar on the back of a Banshee is so real that you feel the beast breathing as you ride!

Bob and I with the other guests on Dinosaur!
I don’t know why we all look like we are posing for the picture. I think the surprise may have been real.

Though it was getting late in the afternoon, and we had dinner reservations at Sanaa over in the Animal Kingdom Lodge, we had time for one more attraction – Dinosaur. Now when it first opened I liked this ride a lot, but unfortunately, I think it’s showing its age. Either that or my eyes are. Everything seemed dim or dark to me. To the point that there was a section of the ride that was just pitch black when the narration said we were supposed to be seeing meteors falling to earth. The ride still has a couple good frights though and the cars are the same kind as used over in Disneyland for the Indiana Jones Adventure – so you feel like you’re in a real off-road vehicle. And the ride picture actually had us both in it this time!

After the ride we had about two hours left to make our reservations. Just enough time to go back to the hotel to drop off our bags, freshen up and get to the Animal Kingdom Lodge for Dinner.

Sanaa

It is worth noting that Animal Kingdom Lodge is the most remote of the Disney property resorts and even from our hotel it was probably about a 20 minute bus ride – at least if felt that way. We arrived at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and found our way to the restaurant, with only a brief pause to apologize to a cast member who I accidentally closed the elevator door on before she could board (the elevator could only go down one floor so we waited a minute for her to arrive). She, of course, said that no apology was necessary. But having worked in the service industry myself I have to think that she appreciated the small gesture.

We arrived a little early for our reservations and were invited to wait outside on the patio if we liked to look at the animals outside. Though it was night the Lodge had heat-sensitive binoculars we could use to spot the animals out in the mini-Savannah which makes up the “backyard” of the hotel complex. Soon we were informed our table was ready and we made our way inside.

I had heard good things about Sanaa from a friend and was looking forward to an African/Asian/Equatorial region inspired meal. The decor of the restaurant is probably best described as African chic with plenty of earth tones, ample foliage, and very few straight lines.

We started our meal with what the server described as a “bread flight” (btw, appetizers are extra and not included in the dining plan) which Bob and I both thought was very good. It was simply a variety of pita style breads and a generous assortment of Indian-style sauces ranging from mildly sweet to extremely spicy. We both chose beef entrees. Mine was “potjie” inspired braised beef. Potjie is a South African dish which is traditionally prepared in one pot and not stirred. My entire main course consisted of Braised Beef, Cilantro-Coconut Vegetables, scented Basmati Rice and I recall some sort of small sausage. I thought my meal was pretty good but somehow I expected it to be more exotic in the sense that there was nothing on my plate that I could not have prepared at home.

The best part of the meal was definitely the desert. I had Serradura is a Portuguese dish which is also known as sawdust pudding or Macau pudding. It taste much better than its name might imply. Sanaa’s version is a butterscotch pudding topped with almond coffee streusel, pineapple, mango, and Breton Shortbread. I know that I finished all of this! Bob had an African Triple Chocolate Mousse that was both pleasing to the eye and the palate (or so I was told – I don’t really do chocolate and did not taste it myself).

All in all, I was glad for the meal and the dining experience.

Disney Springs

It was still relatively early when we finished our meal so instead of going back to the hotel we decided to make our first foray to Downtown Disney – oops, sorry – I meant Disney Springs. Despite the re-branding I think Disney Springs can best be described as an upscale shopping mall. It does have several restaurants you may not find elsewhere and the world’s largest World of Disney store as well as several other decidedly Disney themed shops you won’t find elsewhere except maybe at Downtown Disney in California. If you were to compare it to Universal’s City Walk, Disney Springs is the clear winner as it’s more expansive and has a greater diversity of shopping. But, if you’re not really into shopping as entertainment I wouldn’t budget a lot of time to spend here. An evening or afternoon is plenty to see what’s what. Bob was, of course, just thrilled to be there as the accompanying picture of him at the World of Disney suggests.

Another bus trip to the hotel, a quick refill for my Diet Coke nightcap and it was off to dreamland to recover from our “lazy” day at Disney.

To be continued…

Bob in Mouse Ears being grumpy
Have you ever seen a man this happy to be at Walt Disney World?

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr