- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio

There’s a new race in the fast-food industry: competing to see who can deliver faster and better service to customers pulling up to the takeout window.

With drive-through now representing a huge portion of sales — 70 percent at Burger King Corp. alone — the answer can make or break the fast-food giants.

The trick is finding new ways to stand out in an industry ultimately limited by how fast workers can assemble orders, collect payment and hand out food to drivers. Companies are trimming bulky text from menus, using computer programs that guess upcoming orders and routing order-taking duties to call centers.

Although speed remains a benchmark of success, the average service time hasn’t been cut much below about three minutes in the past five years. That is why many chains are focusing instead on reducing the number of mistakes in orders and making ordering easier.

“Getting faster and faster and faster isn’t necessarily meeting the experience,” said Mike Watson, vice president of operations at Wendy’s International Inc. “You can go too fast, and then it’s just messy.”

Pam Farber, the daughter of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, remembers that when she worked at one of her father’s fast-food stores in the 1970s, customers were often baffled by the drive-through concept. She often had to run outside with a pen and pad to talk to customers who were confused by the bullhorn speaker or whose loud mufflers overwhelmed cashiers’ voices.

Now Wendy’s is replacing some of the text on menus with more pictures and placing awnings over menu boards to shield customers from rain and snow.

Technology firms are stepping in with digital menus that can increase sales by suggesting “missing” side items or desserts. At some McDonald’s stores, orders are placed through central call centers rather than cashiers in the restaurant.

Checkers Drive-In Restaurants Inc. has started testing confirmation screens, which display orders back to customers so they can make corrections before pulling up to the window.

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