by Carol Tice, via Forbes |
Restaurant wait times are a tricky thing. If we think the wait’s too long, we leave. Or we grumble along this time, but then we don’t come back.
Which is why what matters isn’t how long the wait is, but how long we think it is. So that’s what digital branding and social marketing firm Digital Coco measured in its recently released Speed of Servicereport. The firm keeps a Restaurant Social Media Index that analyzes social-media mentions about the top 250 brands.
There are several reasons why fast food is getting slower. As chains have diversified beyond simple burger-and-fries menus, it’s difficult to crank out orders as quickly. We also eat out more often now, which leads to longer lines. Savvy chains are battling back with advanced restaurant technology, training, and careful changes to kitchen layouts.
Slow service is also a growing problem for brands, because of social media. Digital diners like nothing better than to vent about bad service online — the study found there were 11.6 million comments about speed of service made on social media in the first half of this year alone. Our top service gripes are rude staff, order mistakes, and tech glitches, in that order.
Where can you still get fast eats? Based on what diners say about brands on social media, here are the rankings:
- Starbucks — Despite an increasingly complicated menu, Starbucks keeps those lines moving like at Disneyland, giving patrons the feeling they’re making progress. The java giant won points for its app, which allows you to quickly look up past orders. A policy that limits baristas to assembling a no more than two drinks at a time helps keep things moving and prevent errors.
- McDonald’s — The Golden Arches got a new ordering system last year that lets customers roam the restaurant rather than hang around the checkstands, because their order number will appear on the restaurants’ screens when it’s ready. After its average order speed slowed a year ago, McDonald’s announced a $3 billion initiative aimed at cutting wait times.
- Panera Bread — Critics snipe that Panera’s complex menu is too slow for fast food, but in fact they ranked tops for the fast-casual food brands. One advance is a ‘locator’ system that allows waitstaff to bring food to you — no more jumping up to get your order.
- Chipotle — The fast-Mex king is famous for cranking as many as 350 orders per hour during peak times. The chain has a robust app for mobile orders, and a four-point program for speedy serving that includes making sure experienced staff are on deck during busy times.
- Shake Shack — Customers are promised speedy service in this East Coast chain’s “Shack Pact.” Its headquarters store in New York City even has a Shack Cam that streams a view of the wait online, so you can pick a slow time to visit.
- McAlister’s Deli — Technology is giving this deli chain an edge. Using ConnectSmart Kitchen by QSR Automation allows each kitchen station to focus only on its dishes, Digital Coco reports, while the tech helps bring the customer’s order together at the end of the line.
- Wendy’s — This fast-food stalwart won points for its drive-through speed. Its fastest drive-through speed came in 2003, when trade publication QSR magazine clocked it at 116 seconds, and more recently orders come out in an average of under 130 seconds.
- Applebee’s — The top family dining chain for speed rolled out tableside checkout this year, adding 100,000 Presto tablet computers from E la Carte at 2,000 locations. Nothing makes a bad dining experience like that seemingly interminable wait for your credit card to come back from a far-off register.
- Jason’s Deli — Seeking to improve food delivery times, 38-year-old Jason’s implemented Long Range Systems’ TableTracker, a table-locator system. In an LRS case study, Jason’s regional manager Michael Johnson says the system shaved a full minute off order delivery times. (Full disclosure: LRS appears to be a sponsor of Digital Coco’s speed of service study.)
- Red Robin — The West-coast gourmet burger chain has focused on optimizing staffing as part of its efforts at speed improvement. Red Robin uses a labor management system from Unifocus that forecasts business volumes and trends in what customers order, to allow pinpoint staffing of the best-trained employees.
Notably absent from the list: fast-growing sandwich chain Jimmy John’s. Digital Coco theorized that the chain’s “Freaky Fast” marketing campaign may be raising consumer expectations that aren’t met.
Were you surprised to see two sit-down restaurant chains appear in the top ten? Remember, diners’ tolerance for waits at family restaurants are longer than when we’re standing around a fast-food order counter, or idling in our cars at the drive-through.
The survey found we’d like our order in 90 seconds at a fast-food place, in 4 minutes at a fast-casual spot like Chipotle, and in 12 minutes at a casual dining restaurant such as Applebee’s. We’re willing to wait 30 minutes for our order at a fine-dining eatery before we get annoyed.
Thirty minutes is also the maximum time diners said they’d wait to be seated at a fine-dining restaurant — longer than that, and patrons drive away.