Fans find Chick-fil-A drive-thrus worth wait

Matt Kempner
Atlanta Journal Constitution

Time, it turns out, is relative at Chick-fil-A.

For clock watchers, drive-thrus at the Atlanta-based chain remain the slowest among major fast-food brands, most of which have seen wait times grow during the pandemic, according to a new annual study.

But Chick-fil-A customers aren’t buying it. They give the chain’s drive-thru speed of service the best ratings of any of the brands tested, a separate new survey shows.

And packed drive-thrus at the chicken sandwich stop continue to gather top rankings in other measurements — perhaps making waits more tolerable.

Many restaurants around the nation saw business plummet amid coronavirus concerns and government-set restrictions early in the pandemic. Plenty of dining rooms have yet to reopen. But restaurants with drive-thrus had what turned out to be a strategic advantage in an era of social distancing.

Chick-fil-A, one of the largest U.S. restaurant chains by revenue, had some of the highest per-restaurant sales in its segment last year. It hasn’t publicly disclosed how its business has fared in recent months, but long drive-thru lines that were common before the pandemic are still evident at some of its restaurants.

Among 10 large fast-food chains, total drive-thru times this summer averaged five minutes and 57 seconds, half a minute longer than a year ago, according to SeeLevel HX, an Atlanta-based market research firm conducting its 20th annual review. The time spanned from when a tester pulled into line until they received their food.

Chick-fil-A’s average total time increased just two seconds but it still had the longest waits — eight minutes and 9 seconds. Arby’s, which is also based in metro Atlanta, had the second-longest average time: six minutes and 34 seconds, almost a minute and a half longer than its mark a year ago.

The shortest average waits were at KFC, at four minutes and 43 seconds, though it ranked last for customer service and accuracy. McDonald’s, Taco Bell and KFC each had shorter average waits from a year ago.

A spokesperson for Arby’s, which ranked well for customer service, taste and accuracy, wasn’t immediately available for comment Friday.

A Chick-fil-A spokeswoman praised the chicken chain’s operators and workers “for their dedication to customer service and resiliency during what has been a challenging year for all. They have worked tirelessly to share a smile through a mask and deliver a seamless, contactless experience, primarily in our drive-thrus.”

One likely reason for Chick-fil-A’s longer waits: Its restaurants tend to serve far more customers, with testers counting nearly three times as many other vehicles in the chain’s lines than the industry average, SeeLevel HX found. Both Chick-fil-A and the other chains had more vehicles in line than were counted a year ago.

SeeLevel HX’s mystery shoppers gave Chick-fil-A number 1 ratings for order accuracy, customer service and taste.

And Chick-fil-A won the highest ratings in a consumer survey released this week by industry publication QSR. The chain scored the best out of 17 restaurant brands, followed closely by Arby’s, Culver’s and Panera, according to QSR.

Among the categories Chick-fil-A aced in the QSR consumer survey: order accuracy, friendliness of staff … and speed of service.

One thing that reduces the perception of time: Chick-fil-A staff tend to pleasantly greet customers as they are in line, taking orders and payment early on, prior to where speaker boxes would normally be. Often, smiling workers talk to customers twice before they even reach the pickup window.

Chick-fil-A is less focused on timing than other attributes consumers value, said Lisa van Kesteren, SeeLevel HX’s chief executive.

“It pays off because Chick-fil-A has a cult-like following,” she said.

She said restaurants also face new challenges that could slow down service during the pandemic, such as increased cleaning routines, more food delivery pickups and additional training of new staff brought in after some restaurants eventually reopened or increased operations.