What's Driving the Drive-Thru?

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What's Driving the Drive-Thru?

By Ed Rubinstein, Contributing Editor - 01/01/2007

It's no secret that the drive-thrus will always be a strategic focus of quick-service foodservice operators, whether their biggest sellers are upsized value meals, rotisserie chicken dinners, or even tall mocha lattes. One obvious reason is that the drive-thru constitutes at least two-thirds of the average QSR's revenues.

Along the way, some technologies have helped customer service quotients and average checks, including order confirmation boards, advanced communications systems, and the acceptance of credit cards. The drive-thru is not yet a perfected system, however, as many operators still struggle with long lines during the peak lunch and dinner hours.

Looking ahead, Hospitality Techno-logy has identified three demand-driven trends that appear poised to dominate the drive-thru domain over the next 12 to 18 months.

Calling all call centers
Internet Protocol (IP) has, for years, become a standard for cost-effectively accessing and distributing information via the Web. By adding voice to this mix, known as VoIP, quick-service operators are utilizing off-site call center agents whereby customers' orders placed via telephone and Internet are transmitted to remote call centers via VoIP. Through this process, operators report higher numbers of orders processed in less time, greater order accuracy, and operational "halo effects" by focusing on prepping and packaging meals. 

Kevin Fritton, executive vice president of Wendy's franchisee 256 Associates in Nashua, N.H., "never dreamed" that he would actually enter the call center business that he now manages in Amherst, N.H.

"I flat out said it wasn't going to work," he recalls But in the fall of 2005, he tested the Order Perfect POS software from Exit41 ( www.exit41.com ), which included adding two more drive-thru lanes. Now he has plans to put the service in all 14 of the company's restaurants this year. Fritton maintains that proof of concept is in the numbers to date. Typically, a drive thru with a single menu board and pick-up window can handle about 60 to 70 cars per hour. "One store with three lanes recently serviced 42 cars during a 15 minute interval, which is unheard of in this business, plus we've shaved about 1 percent off of our food costs," Fritton says. Positive payback from the software licenses, drive-thru construction costs, and quarterly processing fees were realized in less than one year.

Exit41's solution will soon allow for Web- and phone-based ordering via a multipoint order module. This feature will enable more order points and increase customer ordering options, thus resulting in greater convenience and, subsequently, higher sales. Fritton says he is eager to tap such a service, particularly for those stores that cater to businesses.

Long term, the use of remote call centers could conceivably transform the non-drive-thru portions of quick-service restaurants into true table service establishments. For example, telephones that utilize VoIP-based ordering technology could be fitted at each table, thereby eliminating the order-taking process at quick-service establishments.

Predictive tools
Drive-thru operations of any quick-service restaurant can sometimes be affected by operational issues, such as a lack of tools that can help restaurant managers and their crews respond more favorably to short-term demand factors by linking kitchen management software and cameras to their point-of-sale systems.

Last year, Hyperactive Technologies ( www.gohyper.com ) took the wraps off of HyperTrack, which measures and monitors various points in the drive-thru experience, from when the car enters the parking lot until it leaves the pickup window, and identifies drive-offs, too. The drive-thru module is an extension of "HyperActive Bob," a kitchen management solution that optimizes short-term demand based on continuous monitoring of restaurant traffic patterns, revenues and available product levels. 

"This tool is the only solution that combines visual, historical, and point-of-sale data to help employees decide in real time what to cook, when to cook it, and how much of it to cook it," says a restaurant IT executive, who requested anonymity. The Hyperactive Bob solution has been utilized by southern quick-service chain Zaxby's, which has reported increases in drive-thru orders rung with lower levels of waste, and is currently being piloted by three more burger chains.

Thwarting theft
QSRs have accepted credit and debit card payments for sometime now, which has boded well for drive-thru transaction counts and average checks. But card acceptance has also been a boon to identity theft, which remains one of the fastest growing crimes in the country. A 2004 study by the Federal Trade Commission found that 27.3 million Americans have been victims of identity theft in the last five years.

One recent example of drive-thru theft occurred last September when an employee at an Atlanta-area Taco Bell was arrested for the alleged skimming of a customer's credit and debit card information. The patron paid more than $7,000 for her fast food purchase.

That's why an emerging drive-thru trend is the notion of customer-activated transactions, whereby debit and credit cards are never handed off to restaurant employees and transactions are as "contact-less" and ubiquitous as ATM transactions in banks.

One supplier at the forefront of the secure "swipe 'n go" trend is Verifone ( www.verifone.com ), which recently introduced its QX720 payment terminal that supports credit, debit, and contact less cards and sports rugged, weather-resistant housing. The terminal represents a huge initiative in 2007 and has been tested at a spate of company-owned McDonald's units in several Illinois suburbs. Specifics on the testing are not yet available due to non-disclosure agreements.

Elsewhere, additional security measures are being activated by other suppliers of transponder-based technologies. For example, the ExxonMobile SpeedPass, first introduced in 1997, recently implemented a zip code verification program to protect its customers against fraudulent tag use, as well as for all debit and credit card transactions. If the zip code entered does not match the customer's billing address, the transaction will be denied.

With strong consumer pressures to protect against identity theft, HT considers this technology one to watch.