Burgers, fries and a wait?

Columbia fast-food restaurants are evaluated on the speed of service.
Wednesday, June 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:40 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The original fast-food restaurants, known for quick service with a smile, appear to be at a crossroads. Forced to expand their menus to keep up with competition and consumer demands, the places that once offered nothing more than burgers, fries and Cokes are struggling to keep their food fast.

To solve the problem, many fast-food chains have set goals for speed of service. For example, Wendy’s promises food in roughly 95 seconds, inside or from the drive-thru window, while Burger King and Hardee’s allow three minutes or more to complete the order.

But according to a Newsweek report in 2002, even McDonald’s’ own mystery shoppers found that the restaurant’s promised service speed of 90 seconds after placing an order was met “only 46 percent of the time, with three of every 10 customers waiting more than four minutes for their meals.”

So, we wondered, just how fast is Columbia’s fast food? We sent 16 people to local Burger King, Hardee’s, McDonald’s and Wendy’s restaurants to get the low-down on the burger business.

Eight testers ordered inside from the four franchises. Four ordered basic burgers, small fries and drinks, while the other four ordered each chain’s trademark burger (example: the Whopper at Burger King), with tomatoes only, large fries and a large drink. Each participant timed the wait, keeping an eye on how busy each place was.

At the same time, eight testers stayed in their vehicles, ordering the same items mentioned above via bad speakers and awkward windows. They kept track of how long it took before their order was placed and after, adding up the number of waiting cars at the same time.

The results varied. Our mystery shoppers found faster food inside, where far less traffic was found at all restaurants we visited. The Wendy’s and McDonald’s testers got lunch the fastest. Hardee’s was slowest inside and outside.

This wasn’t the first test checking speed at fast-food restaurants. In fact, since 1997, Quality and Speed for Restaurant Success Magazine has tested 25 restaurants in an effort to crown the annual “Best Drive-Thru in America” to the restaurant chain that finishes first in a composition of areas including speed, accuracy and menu clarity. Last year, Wendy’s proved to be fastest nationwide, averaging just under two minutes after ordering. McDonald’s placed fifth with Burger King close behind at seventh. Hardee’s finished 19th.

These comparisons will prove important to anyone in a rush, as most consumers have become. Students squeezing in a quick lunch before the next class while workers forced to grab a bite and go during the constantly shrinking lunch hour do not have time to wait in a line for food. To serve these types, fast-food restaurants are changing with the times, said Sherri Daye, managing editor for QSR Magazine.

“Traditional fast-food chains are constantly trying to get faster service times,” Daye said. “To do that, restaurants have changed their menu boards, began using wireless headsets and increased training.”

Since 60 percent of store sales come from the drive-thru, Daye said inside service has been neglected. Drive-thru menus have been placed before the speaker so customers are ready to place the order. The order is broadcast to all employees wearing the wireless headsets, including the guy getting the beverages, all in an effort get the speed of service time down to the restaurant goal.

What if that goal is not met?

Leslie Ragain, shift manager at a local Hardee’s, said her staff receives a lot of complaints about their speed of service. Hardee’s, known recently for their implementation of the “Thick Burger,” has slowed down its service time for what it says is a better product worth the wait.

But in our local study, while Hardee’s time was slowest inside and via drive-thru, Hardee’s also had fewer people inside ordering and fewer cars waiting for the better product. In fact, one of the orders placed was incorrect after waiting two and a half minutes to get it.

All in all, the majority of fast-food restaurants, while adding new items to their menus, assured our testers that speed is still a top priority in the overall service goal.

Inside Drive-Thru
Fast-food Restaurant Basic order Special order # of people in line Before order After order #of cars in lIne
Burger King 1 min 35 sec 1 min 33 sec 3 no wait 3 min 35 sec 1
Hardee's 2 min 25 sec 2 min 30 sec * 1 no wait 4 min 15 sec 3
McDonald's 65 sec 64 sec 5 56 sec 1 min 35 sec 6
Wendy's 60 sec 61 sec 3 1 min 27 sec 61 sec 5
*order was wrong

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