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From Overwhelmed Employees to Outdated Equipment: 5 Reasons Your QSR’s Drive-Thru Efficiency Is Suffering

Published on September 21, 2022
By Michelle George

Drive-thrus are changing with society, with QSRs increasingly focusing on technology to improve their efficiency in a world of complex menu items and changing customer expectations. As shown in Figure 1 below, more QSRs are taking over 200 seconds to complete a drive-thru order, with wait times representing a huge hurdle for QSRs as they add more limited time offerings to their menu and seek to personalize the experience for customers. 

More QSRs Are Taking Over 200 Seconds to Complete a Drive-Thru Order

Figure 1 – Drive Thru Wait Times (Data Source: The 2018 Drive-Thru Study: Speed of Service) 

Here are 5 reasons your QSR’s efficiency is suffering at the drive-thru: 

  • You Don’t Have an Order Confirmation Board 

There is Still a Gap in Order Confirmation Board Adoption

Figure 2 – Percent of Stores with Order Confirmation Boards for 10 Different QSRs (Data Source: Making the Case for Order-Confirmation Boards) 


Order confirmation boards (OCBs) expedite the process of making sure an order is correct, freeing up employees to prepare food while preventing errors that could increase drive-thru wait times. Customers who need to step out of their car to return or exchange a wrong order slow up the inside line as they interrupt cashiers, while also putting strain on drive-thru workers as they try to fix the order. Looking at Figure 2, there is a clear divide between QSRs that have OCBs and those that do not, with little change between 2017 and 2019. Arby’s, Chick-fil-A, Dunkin’, and KFC have the lowest adoption rates for order confirmation boards, representing less than 17% of stores for each QSR. McDonald’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, and Taco Bell have OCBs in at least 70% of their stores. 

There is also an advantage to upgrading your OCBs. In 2013, Starbucks began testing video-based order confirmation boards at a few of its drive-thru stores in Washington and Nevada. By 2017, screens were deployed at about a third of its 200 Canadian drive-thru stores. As of 2018, 2800 Starbucks drive-thru locations in the US had a two-way video in which a barista connects with customers and confirms the order. With drive-thrus at 80% of its new stores, Starbucks is making a big commitment to convenience, and it pays off. According to King-Casey, drive-thru stores now have 50% higher sales than café-only stores. 

  •  You’re Not Realizing the Full Potential of Digital Menuboards 

QSRs Still Lag Behind McDonald’s in Digital Menuboard Adoption


Figure 3 – Percent of Stores with Digital Menuboards for 10 Different QSRs (Data Source: Are Digital Menuboards the Future of Drive-Thru) 

McDonald’s is leading the fast food industry in digital menuboard adoption, with Figure 3 showing they are in 60.6% of McDonald’s locations. Carl’s Jr., the nearest competitor in QSR Magazine’s 2019 Drive-Thru Performance Study, has digital menus in only 22% of its restaurants – showing that the rest of the fast food industry has a lot of catching up to do. 

However, merely having a digital menuboard does not automatically increase speed of service or other measures of efficiency. McDonald’s actually saw the biggest increase in drive-thru wait times out of the 9 different QSRs included in the Drive-Thru Performance Studies from the past 3 years. Figure 1 shows that it took 36.46% longer to order food through a McDonald’s drive-thru in 2019 compared to 2016. For the same time period, Carl’s Jr. and Hardees were the only QSRs to decrease their drive-thru wait times, as shown by the two broken lines in Figure 1. 

Unlike static menus, digital displays can change with the time of day, so there is no need to fit breakfast, lunch and dinner options on the same screen simultaneously. Reserve precious screen real estate for high resolution images of your highest margin products at the top. Make sure the most popular items are easily visible so your regulars do not spend extra time looking at the menu and holding up cars behind them. Technologies like Personalization Anywhere from Dynamic Yield, the company McDonald’s acquired in March 2019, can expedite the ordering process further by suggesting a group of items based on the weather so customers do not have to waste time piecing together a winter- or summer-friendly meal from different parts of the menu. 

Pick fonts that align with your brand’s in-store design while making sure they are readable on outdoor screens. The more familiar looking your new digital menuboard is, the faster customers will be able to order. If you have a coffee shop chain that focuses on creating a hometown feel inside, design your drive-thru’s digital menu to capture the same aesthetic with a chalkboard background and fonts like Sketchalot or Ageng Sans. 

  • You’re Not Using Presell Menuboards Effectively 

According to QSR Magazine’s article on digital menuboards, presell menus decrease drive-thru wait times by 3.6%, yet only 54.9% of the QSRs surveyed had one. While this is much higher than the 19.3% of respondents that have digital menus, QSRs like Dunkin’, Chick-fil-A, and Taco Bell lag behind the pack, with presell menus in only 24.8%, 36.1% and 37.6% of stores, respectively. 

Presell menuboards can be more persuasive than digital menus since they devote more real estate to a single promotional item, including video that shows the product in a more appealing way than just a static image. Especially if there is a line at the drive-thru, this technology increases perceived speed of service by giving customers something to look at while they wait, so make sure it is at least 3 car lengths away from the order screen. It also saves customers the hassle of having to ask about your holiday drinks or specials, helping them finalize their purchase decisions sooner, and frees your employees of the burden of remembering to mention your limited time offers. 

  • Mobile Orders and Poor Drive-Thru Design Are Overwhelming Your Workforce 

After the rapid growth of ordering through its Mobile Order & Pay app in 2017 from 13 to 1,200 stores the previous year, Starbucks was facing a challenge. Managers found it difficult to predict the number and frequency of mobile orders, which led to understaffing during peak hours. Baristas were overwhelmed, leading to wait times that were 50% higher than Dunkin’, and Starbucks’ complex menu made it difficult for customers to personalize drinks from their cars. 

To become a top-tier drive-thru concept, Starbucks needed to develop separate goals for each drive-thru zone based on its customers’ changing behaviors as they moved along the drive-thru, and technology played a key role in this shifting mindset. After hiring restaurant consulting firm King Casey, Starbucks segmented its drive-thru merchandising strategy into zones that each have a different set of customer concerns and requirements. At the pickup and pay zone, for instance, customers may care more about speed than at the order zone, where they may want more assistance in choosing the right products. 

This involved tailoring the brand’s messaging to suit the different customer requirements in each zone, and even changing the design of the drive-thru lanes, windows and menu boards. With King-Casey’s approach, even the business objectives are different in each customer operating zone. For the approach and entry zones, Starbucks added arrows from DecoMark in their signature green color in response to customers who complained they could never tell if a Starbucks location had a drive-thru after pulling into the parking lot. 

In the order zone, Starbucks created the concept of a digital barista – allowing customers to have face-to-face interaction with actual baristas from inside the café. What makes this change successful is not just the video technology, but suggestions that appear on the screen as a customer orders to increase the chances of an upsell and simplify Starbucks’ complex menu. 

  • You Need to Upgrade Your Drive-Thru Equipment 

When McDonald’s renovated one of its stores in Magnolia, Arkansas, it secured a $1.35 million new building permit to build two drive-thru lanes, among other renovations and expected to increase drive-thru sales from 70% of all business to 75%. Although this is just one example, it shows the high up-front cost of increasing sales, emphasizing the importance of making sure your equipment can keep up with changes to drive-thru design. 

To maximize your drive-thru’s efficiency and save time in the future, look for new equipment that allows for on-site upgrades like the ability to switch headsets from single to dual-lane capability with color-coded lights that allow workers to keep track of cars in both lanes. Drive-thru equipment that requires a technician to make small changes may be a sign your QSR needs an upgrade. The modular, wireless design of PAR’s G5 headsets allows drive-thru workers to swap out carriers simply by removing and replacing the control pod, reducing downtime. 

Drive-thru headsets with noise reduction and echo cancellation improve comprehension for drive-thru orders, increasing your drive-thru team’s accuracy and speed of service since they will no longer have to ask customers to repeat their orders amidst a backdrop of humming car engines. 

From installing order confirmation boards and digital menus to using presell menus effectively, there are many ways to improve your drive-thru’s efficiency. The key is recognizing which parts of the ordering process need improvement and how these changes will affect your need for different workflows, design and new equipment. For more drive-thru blog posts from PAR, check out our reports on the changing world of drive-thru technology and how to use your POS system to improve drive-thru efficiency.

Tiffany Disher, General Manager, MENU North America

Tiffany Disher

General Manager, MENU North America

Tiffany Disher, General Manager, MENU North America, an omni-channel ordering solution to futureproof restaurant’s growing digital sales needs. Before taking on this new role in January 2023, she was an integral part of Punchh’s growth story. She has advised hundreds of customers over the past eight years on their loyalty strategies both from a base program standpoint as well as ongoing marketing strategies. Before Punchh, Tiffany worked for Schlotzsky’s where she supported the brand marketing team by leading loyalty, eClub, R&D, Franchise advisory council and marketing analytics. Tiffany has her Bachelor’s of Science in Economics from University of Oregon and Master’s in Business with a specialty in Marketing from Baylor University. An avid golfer, hiker and mom of two small children, Tiffany spends her limited free time entering into baking competitions.