I tested the drive-thrus at McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A.
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I visited McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A to compare their drive-thru experiences.
Both chains are trying to speed up their drive-thrus with order-ahead options on their apps.
McDonald’s is using AI voice recognition to take orders, while Chick-fil-A is humanizing its customer service with friendly fast-food workers.
McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A have both updated their drive-thrus in recent years. McDonald’s has been adding AI-powered voice bots to its drive-thru lanes, while Chick-fil-A has been opening some drive-thru only locations, as the chains look to improve convenience and speed of service.
I recently tested drive-thrus at Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s in Overland, Kansas to see how they compared.
Both fast-food chains have mobile order-ahead and pickup options on their apps. The Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s apps also offer delivery options — which McDonald’s calls a “McDelivery” option. Customers can also order food from these chains through other delivery apps, including UberEats.
I ordered a Chick-fil-A deluxe sandwich meal with a frosted lemonade.
It was 1 p.m. and peak lunchtime hour. And Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru is notorious for its long lines.
The fast-food chain routinely ranks among the slowest for its service times, compared to peers. Chick-fil-A ranked last on a list of fast-food restaurants for drive-thru service times at more than five minutes, just behind McDonald’s, according to a 2022 drive-thru report from QSR. Still, customers reported Chick-fil-A had a 93% score for speed-of-service satisfaction, according to the report.
During the pandemic, when Chick-fil-A’s restaurants only offered drive-thru service, some locations faced complaints and lawsuits from local businesses. Business owners told Insider that long drive-thru lines at Chick-fil-A created traffic problems, such as blocking cars in parking lots and contributing to traffic hazards.
Chick-fil-A is a trend-setter in the fast-food industry when it comes to drive-thru innovation. The chain was quick to adopt double drive-thru lanes, which can help cut down on wait times and prevent drive-thru lines from getting too long.
At some Chick-fil-A locations, customers can skip the drive-thru entirely by ordering food on the mobile app and scheduling a curbside pickup.
I told him I placed a mobile order, and he asked for my name to confirm.
These workers, decked out in bright yellow vests, create multiple stop points, beyond the standard speaker and order windows. Their job is to take orders and collect payments from customers.
I saw that the employee stationed in my drive-thru line was confirming orders and collecting payments from cars. Because I had placed my order ahead of time and already paid through the app, the employee just confirmed my order.
While other fast food chains are moving to AI-voice powered voice bots to take customer orders in drive-thrus, Chick-fil-A is focusing on what it calls “face-to-face ordering.” At some Chick-fil-A restaurants, customers can place drive-thru orders over FaceTime with employees.
Instead of a delivery window, the Chick-fil-A location had double doors that allowed workers to quickly hand over orders to customers.
That’s about twice the average wait time for Chick-fil-A’s drive-thru that QSR reported last year.
I ordered a Quarter Pounder meal with cheese and a medium Sprite. Compared to Chick-fil-A, which associated my order with my name, my McDonald’s mobile order assigned me a code to read aloud when I pulled through the drive-thru.
There was only one car ahead of me, so I made it to the speaker quickly to report my arrival.
In the drive-thru lane, an electronic voice first asked me if I placed a mobile order, to which I responded yes. After that, the AI voice asked me to recite the order code. It registered the letters and numbers I read, and the order screen displayed a picture of my order.
When I got to the second window, my order wasn’t ready, so an employee asked me to pull into one of the parking spots designated for drive-thru customers.
A McDonald’s employee delivered my order to my car window about four minutes after I first arrived at the ordering kiosk. But McDonald’s was also serving far fewer customers in the drive-thru than the Chick-fil-A I visited.
During the pandemic, when wait times were especially long in drive-thru lines at many fast-food chains, McDonald’s cut some menu items to speed up its operations. Its AI-voice powered speakers in the drive-thrus are just the latest innovation from the fast-food chain.
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Chick-fil-A is working on rolling out “express lanes,” solely for customers who place orders ahead on their mobile app. The express lanes would be designed to allow customers to breeze much faster through the drive-thru lanes.
The restaurant is also opening drive-thru only locations in the US that are specifically designed to handle high-volume drive-thru orders.
Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Overall, I preferred Chick-fil-A’s focus on human interaction, even through the service was slower.
It was nice to see Chick-fil-A employees’ smiles and hear their enthusiasm for helping me. By comparison, I was initially startled to hear the AI bot at the McDonald’s drive-thru.
I’m sure I’ll get used to AI drive-thru bots as more chains adopt them. White Castle, Panera Bread, Popeyes, and Taco Bell are among the many chains testing AI-powered voice technology.
More widespread use of the bots could also give Chick-fil-A a leg up over rivals for customers like me who prefer face-to-face customer service.