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US fast food isn't as fast anymore, but it's more popular than ever

13th Oct 2021 | Retail

US Drive-thru wait times are at their highest in recent history, according to a new study.
Waits have gotten consistently longer each year, but sales are also up.
Long waits don't seem to deter customers.
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Fast food sales continue to grow, but new data shows it isn't quite as fast as it once was.

Total wait time in drive-thrus increased nearly 30 seconds since 2020 to 382.39 seconds, or just over six minutes, according to the SeeLevel HX Annual Drive-Thru Study. The numbers show a trend of longer waits over time, based on a study of 1,492 visits to 10 prominent brands.

Waits have steadily increased over the last few years, from 234 seconds in 2018, to 327 seconds in 2019 and 356.8 in 2020, resulting in this year's relatively long waits.

One possible explanation for growing waits is the labour shortage in the US crushing the entire retail industry. Business owners say they're unable to find staff and in some cases even cite a lack of desire to work, while workers say they can demand better pay and benefits in the tight labour market. As a result, fast-food chains are having to adjust hours or only operate drive-thrus as they face a lack of staff to keep restaurants running. One Alabama Chick-fil-A that had to close its dining room over a lack of workers called it a "hiring crisis."

Drive-thrus have been key to the survival of fast-food chains throughout the pandemic of the last year and a half. Fast food and fast-casual brands across the country have optimised drive-thrus over the last year, many of them making improvements pioneered by Chick-fil-A. Drive-thru orders have grown across the fast-food industry since the pandemic closed many dining rooms.

Longer wait times don't tell the whole story, though. Chick-fil-A had the longest wait times in another drive-thru study published by QSR, but it also topped both studies in order accuracy and measures of customer satisfaction. Rather than showing a failing in Chick-fil-A's business, long waits seem to indicate that Chick-fil-A is hugely successful, simply drawing in more customers than competitors. Lines are so long that exiting CEO Dan Cathy estimates that up to 30% of customers decide to off. Chick-fil-A locations surveyed by QSR had lines twice as long as the next highest competitors.

Lines are long because fast-food sales are growing industry-wide in the US. McDonald's sales surpassed 2019 levels, and Taco Bell grew throughout the pandemic, boosting service by 30 million additional cars in the third quarter of 2020 over the previous year. As fast-food in the US continues to thrive, longer lines might be the new norm as chains are serving more customers.

By: Mary Meisenzahl