Saturday, February 13, 2010

Drive-Thru 101: History

   In today's fast-paced world, you can get just about anything from a drive-thru window. We can get our morning coffee, make a bank deposit, pick up our prescriptions, grab dinner for the family, and even buy a 6-pack of your favorite adult beverage on the way home. Today's consumer does all of this without even getting out of the car.

   For better or worse, the drive-thru has certainly changed our everyday lives. So how did we get here? Here's a bit of history:

1921 - Fast food is born. Walter Anderson establishes White Castle Hamburgers in Wichita, KS. Anderson partnered with businessman Bill Ingram to spread the concept eastward. White Castle becomes the first fast-food hamburger chain in the U.S. and the first to sell one million, and even one billion hamburgers. They were also the first restaurant chain to use frozen beef patties. Since most folks in 1921 didn't have cars, especially in Wichita, KS, they didn't have a drive-thru, but it didn't take long for this fast-food thing to catch on.

1941 - Carl Karcher, an Ohio farm boy, moves to Anaheim, CA at the age of 24 to work in his uncle's factory. By now, America's love affair with their automobiles was in full bloom. Carl and his wife bought a hot dog cart and began serving customers curbside, so they wouldn't have to even get out of their cars. The Karchers was so successful, they purchased a second cart just months later. They eventually opened Carl's Drive-In Barbeque in 1945, and established the first Carl's Jr. restaurants in 1956.

1948 - Harry and Esther Snyder open the first In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park, CA. The Snyder's concept is credited with being the first establishment to use a two-way intercom for customers to place their orders from a speaker stand, then pull up to a window, where they paid for and received their order. Up to this point, drive-in restaurants were the fast-food norm, with carhops taking and delivering orders while cars were parked in spaces on the property.

1975 - McDonald's, the biggest fast-food chain of them all (Nearly 4000 locations worldwide at the time), finally opens it's first drive-thru in Sierra Vista, AZ. McDonald's may have been late to the drive-thru party, but they made up for lost time. Today, the average McDonald's sees 60% of their business generated in the drive-thru lane. That percentage is likely to increase as many stores are now adding a second lane to boost drive-thru speed and volume.

1984 - HM Electronics develops the first wireless drive-thru intercom system. Up until this point, the drive-thru order taker used a wired push-button intercom, usually located near the service window,  to communicate with the customers at the menu. Since they had to stay close to the intercom to provide fast service, they could not perform other tasks in the restaurant. The wireless system allowed the order taker to move about the restaurant to draw beverages and pack orders, while still being able to communicate with the customer in an efficient manner, boosting productivity and reducing costs. It also reduced the noise levels in what were already very noisy restaurants.

1990's - By the early 1990's wireless drive-thru systems from HME, 3M, and Panasonic could be seen in most larger chain restaurants. Competition was, and still is, fierce among the manufacturers to enhance the capabilities of their products. 3M had developed an all-in-one headset that had no beltpac. Everything, including the battery, sat atop the order taker's head. In 1997, HME teamed with Noise Canceling Technologies, Inc. to launch their ClearSound  noise reduction system. This system reduced ambient noise from traffic and car engines present in any drive-thru, allowing the order taker to hear the customers more clearly, reducing operator fatigue and enhancing order accuracy. 3M and Panasonic also incorporated noise-reducing technologies into their products.

While our means of drive-thru communication improved, chains put other new tools to work in an effort to speed up their drive-thru lanes. Order confirmation boards allowed customers to see the items they ordered and their total order cost on a screen as it was entered into the point of sale terminal, enhancing order accuracy and  prompting the customer to have their payment ready once they arrive at the window.

Drive-thru timers also became more common in chain restaurants. Multi-colored displays and audible alerts tell drive-thru crews when vehicles are not served by the target times. Timers are credited with enhancing speed of service by allowing management to see where time is wasted in the drive-thru process, and motivating crews to concentrate on speed. Many chains have contests where stores compete to see who has the fastest drive-thru times, with prizes and manager bonuses going to the fastest stores.

2000 to Today - In our increasingly fast-paced society, QSR chains compete harder than ever to provide the best value in the fastest way possible. Wasted seconds cost these stores thousands of dollars annually in lost sales. With so many choices, customers are not willing to waste their precious time in slow drive-thru lanes.
Manufacturers of drive-thru equipment also compete like never before for their customer's business. Lithium-Ion battery technology makes headsets smaller and lighter. HME, 3M, and Panasonic have introduced digital-based radio systems into their wireless offerings. Now, every manufacturer has a lightweight, all-in-one headset. Unlike the older analog systems that preceded them , digital systems eliminate radio frequency static and offer better sound quality. Digital systems are also more secure, since beltpacks and headsets must be electronically paired to their base station in order to work.

Integrated auto-greeters or message repeaters are common. The auto-greeter allows your order taker to record a greeting for your customers, usually by suggesting the store's current promotional item. This recording, stored on a microchip in the drive-thru base station, plays automatically when a vehicle pulls up to the menu board. The result is more sales of featured items, reduced operator fatigue, and a customer who is generally happier that they were greeted so quickly, even if it's just a recording. The latest systems offer multiple stored greetings triggered by a schedule, so your greeting can change automatically with a store's transition from daypart to daypart. At closing time, the greeter automatically switches to a "Sorry, We're closed" message, so your customer isn't left wondering if they will be served.

The other tools of the drive-thru trade have also received a high-tech makeover. Order confirmation boards now feature high-resolution LCD screens, showing appealing graphics and programmable messages promoting a store's featured products.  Most modern boards are now essentially networked computers, allowing easy programming and graphics updates.

In 2005, McDonald's began testing remote order taking, using their existing drive-thru intercom system, paired with a voice-over-IP system to route customer audio to a remote location. The order taker could be anywhere in the world with a internet-connected PC and a headset. In some tests, the order taker actually works from their home, although most are concentrated in call centers. The remote order taker can greet and take orders from multiple locations and enter the orders on their PC. The order information is forwarded to the appropriate store for the crew to receive payment and serve the customer. Other chains have since tested this technology as well. Results are mixed, but as labor costs continue to rise, we may see more of this type of outsourcing in the industry.

Today's drive-thru timer is also becoming increasingly networked. The older timer technology only allowed a slow serial data connection to the store's back of house PC. In order to access this data, you had to purchase software that translated and saved the data in a format you can save or print as needed from the PC. Many chains didn't even bother connecting their timers, relying instead on the tiny printouts from the timer base. To report their store's speed of service data, a store manager would then have to fax these reports or relay the information verbally. The new drive-thru timers, such as the HME Zoom, are networked computers with a built-in web server. Timer programming, real-time displays, and history reports can be accessed from any computer with a internet connection. You can even set the system to email reports in an easy to read PDF format on an automatic schedule. The old LED display that showed you only numbers has been replaced by a large LCD screen, with a programmable graphic representation of the drive-thru lane, showing cars in line and as much data as you wish to display.

The common denominator in all of this new technology is the ability to network all of your tools and control them, either from your back of house PC, or an internet-connected computer thousands of miles away. The latest digital drive-thru base stations from HME and 3M allow store managers or technicians to remotely manage audio levels, perform diagnostic checks, and investigate failures remotely. These new innovations have further enhanced speed of service and order accuracy. While new technology rarely comes cheap, most stores discover that a faster, more productive, and more accurate drive-thru pays for itself in short order.
We certainly have come a long way!

Please visit us again for our next Drive-Thru 101. Our goal is to help you make the most of your drive-thru. If you have any questions or need assistance, leave a comment or contact one of our affiliates. We are here to help.

Thanks for stopping by!