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QSR Feature
Operating at the Drive-Thru
Drive-thru operations and the solutions that shape them evolve just as nature does: survival of the fittest.

Great ideas don’t necessarily translate to success— even those great ideas that are worth the cost.

Due to the fragmented nature of the buying community, the relatively short life cycle of technology, and the highly competitive nature of the business and corresponding need to closely watch spending, an innovation in the quick-service industry typically will succeed only when it demonstrates an unarguable positive return on investment (roi) in a fairly short period of time. The implication is that innovations in quick-service—even those that can immediately reduce costs or increase sales—might not earn significant market penetration because buyers are reluctant to take risks with technology.

Take, for example, speaker technology. Despite the fact that full-duplex systems (an open line, similar to a phone conversation) have been in the market for more than 10 years, a recent study showed that more than 20 percent of restaurants surveyed still use the half-duplex systems (where only one party can speak at a time).

When operational efficiency improvements are subtle, at times to the point that customers might not even immediately notice them, operators might be even more resistant to investing. With a multitude of reasons why you should not buy into every new technology that comes along, it is critically important to keep in mind that sustained cost reductions are often about making good investments rather than simply not spending money. For those operators and chains that embrace technology and make smart purchasing decisions, the cumulative effect is long-term health and improved profitability.

By adding proven technologies and integrating them into your business, subsequent opportunities will often allow you to build and enhance even further. As computers have become more common in restaurants for reporting and management, a byproduct has been the ability to use this power to enhance operations. According to HM Electronics Director of Marketing Daren Haas, “Technology has accelerated dramatically over the past several years in quick-service, and computers are driving it all because they give restaurants the power to use the technology that’s available.”

Further, the technology being utilized is often relatively inexpensive because the roots are developed in other industries. The wireless communications systems for electronic payment authorizations and order processing, for example, were primarily developed by the cellular phone industry and adapted to quick-service applications afterwards. As such, a significant amount of the research and development costs were already accounted for before the technology even hit the industry. Ultimately, operators already invested in a technology such as wireless will be able to use the infrastructure for other purposes within the restaurant, such as improved internal communications to facilitate better workflow.

Technological solutions designed to help operators market and/or improve efficiency can now be found at just about every stop in the drive-thru, and sometimes even before your customer gets in line. One example of this is a demand-forecasting program developed by HyperActive Technologies, called HyperActive Bob. Introduced to the market in 2005, HyperActive Bob counts vehicles as they come onto the lot. Utilizing POS data, employee feedback, “robotic vision,” and algorithms that analyze data from day to day, week to week and second to second, the system produces a demand forecast used to guide employees in production so that they are actually starting the cooking process for orders that have not yet been placed. According to Gregor Thompson, HyperActive Technologies’s vice-president of sales and marketing, payback on a system is often as rapid as six months, but almost always faster than a year. Theoretically, the payoff is the result of reduced waste, improved service times, and better over the-counter quality.

Once your customer is in line, the pre-sell menu board is a great opportunity to take advantage of otherwise wasted time. It not only provides the customer with the opportunity to make decisions before reaching the order point, but it also provides a subtle opportunity to market. Based on a recent Insula study, however, just over half of quick-serve restaurants utilize a pre-sell board in their drive-thru—this despite the fact that, as a group, restaurants with pre-sell boards consistently provide faster service times than those without.

The next generation of pre-sell boards is a digital display rather than the current static boards. Some manufacturers are introducing digital LCD displays that allow the operator to change the content based upon time of day, day of week, or current promotions. In some models, content is stored locally and can be scheduled by daypart. Another model is equipped with a transmitter that converts a signal, allowing much greater distance between the in-store server and the display. This model also allows an operator to run multiple displays off of one server, a feature particularly useful for co-branded food service/c-store operations where pump-topper displays mounted on each dispenser could run the same loop. If the restaurant is also connected to the internet, content can be delivered to the store from the home office or other outside source.

At the order station, several different options for marketing and/or improved communications can be found. The same digital screens described above can be incorporated into the menuboard or order confirmation board. The caution here is to ensure that digital communications are not so entertaining as to actually slow the customer’s order while s/he is engaged with the messaging.

The incidence of order confirmation boards (ocb) was about the same when comparing available 2005 data to the 2006 Insula drive-thru performance study. Manufacturers, however, have cut production of LED confirmation boards to a minimum. As a result, over the next several years LCD boards will be the norm simply through attrition. New management tools that have recently been introduced for the OCB market make it easier for operators to customize marketing to specific days and dayparts as needed. As with the menuboards, content can also be downloaded from an outside source, provided the restaurant has Internet capabilities. As costs of digital equipment and technology fall, the ROI for many of these devices will become more and more attractive.

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