Quick Recipes and Easy

Restaurant Dining Review – Drive Thru Blues

We’re your drive-thru customers. The ones who pay your bills – so listen up. Ok, let’s admit it, we occasionally find ourselves in your takeout drive-thru line, particularly on football nights. Why can’t we know anything your menu board says? It’s not a lot of fun sitting out here talking to a backlighted piece of plastic under the best of conditions. But when it spits out a bunch of verbal gibberish, we start to doubt ourselves. Maybe we just don’t have the right stuff to order drive-thru takeout.

Drive-thru operations with talking menu boards existed long before we place men on the moon. We have no problem talking to the men on the moon. Law enforcement agencies beam a listening device at our living room window from the next block and hear us whispering. But talking to your drive-thru order taker 100 feet away seems beyond current technology.

Probably after a monumental operational study and several Board of Director’s meetings, Jack chose to add a “pre-ordering” menu board to the Jack in the Box drive-thru. Imagine the loss of self-esteem suffered by us drive-thru customers shouting at this mute piece of plastic, especially when the yardman tells us that around the drive-thru corner, hidden behind some bushes, is an identical menu board with a squawk box. Then learning that we can’t know a word it says, anyway. We leave, broken shells of our former selves, holding a white paper bag containing God knows what.

This is a common drive-thru conversation (Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

“Welcometobicsbetterbur(static)homeoftheflam(someone shouting)chick(cash register ringing)edsteak”


“welcometobicsbett(scratchy sound)burgersmay(cough)akeur(cash register ringing)der.

“Do you want my order?”


“Go where?”


“Wow! You speak English fantastic.”

“Eight what?”

“Never mind, just give me: 2 – #1’s, 1 – #2, and 3 – #4’s”

“Ok, that’s: a #1, a #2, a #3, and a #4. frieslawbeansurtots?”

And so it goes.

Not all the drive-thru communication problems are the result of cheap, faulty audio systems. Many drive-thru operations that pay their order takers a whopping $7.00 to $9.00 per hour, feel these minions should multitask to earn their lofty wage. They are fitted with a wireless headset (an endemic source of communication mayhem), freeing them to fill drink orders and sack orders, while taking orders, cashing out orders, and handing the orders through the delivery window. Five for one: not a terrible deal – if the operator discounts our frustration when the overtaxed person just can’t keep your drive-thru moving along smoothly.

It would be an fascinating study to determine the cost/return ratio of putting a real live, smiling, pleased person in the drive-thru line for three hours each at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That’s nine hours daily of personal contact with us, your drive-thru customers: greeting us; taking our orders; selling us lots of extra stuff; keeping us satisfied and streamlining the whole operation to process more orders in less time. The increased sales could be shocking.

Since that thought is way too radical for most operators, then how about trying these solutions to help us out:

1) Convince your order takers that they are communicators, not speed-talkers. 2)Let your order taker do just that: process the orders, collect the money, and hand the orders to us. 3) If there is a better order taking system, buy it.

Bill Miller Bar-B-Q, a South Texas chain with over 60 stores, opted for all three above. Their audio system is excellent, and their order takers are not overtaxed and usually are comprehensible. Here’s the huge difference. Immediately next to their backlighted piece of plastic, they placed a pylon containing an LCD screen that shows our order as it’s punched into the cash register. What a sense of accomplishment, just knowing that our order is right.

In a survey of your drive-thru customers, most would vote for the real, live person. If you feel you can’t do this, then any of #1, #2 or #3 above would help us. Or follow Bill Miller’s lead and do all three, and we’ll keep on driving-thru.

copyright 2006 Bill Stephens

Bill Stephens writes the syndicated column heyrestaurantguy.com heyrestaurantguy.com His 35 year career in food service includes restaurateur, caterer, food and wine columnist for Harte-Hanks, Murdoch and Hearst Newspapers, food and wine magazine journalist, and he consults for restaurants with Bill Stephens Associates billstephensassociates.com billstephensassociates.com

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