Life in the Drive Thru Lane

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on

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).

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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