Drive-Thru Habits You Should And Shouldn't Do

What type of person chooses to go inside a fast food restaurant to order their food when a drive-thru lane is available? We can't say. Frankly, though, if a business has a drive-thru option — AKA one of the 20th century's greatest societal contributions — yet you still willingly park your car and go into an establishment to order? Well ... you may be a few french fries short of a combo meal.

We're kidding, of course. But the monumental popularity of the drive-thru lane is fairly easy to comprehend — and the preference for a pickup window is hardly unique to us. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many restaurants to severely restrict in-person dining options, drive-thru lanes seemed to dominate the fast food landscape. And since the average person spent more than $1200 dollars per year on fast food in the U.S. as of 2020, according to QSR Magazine, there's clearly no shortage of drive-thru windows in use across the nation.

The drive-thru has long been a friend to rushing diners, introverts, and folks eager to keep their fast food indulgences hidden from public view. Of course, if you've frequented the drive-thru throughout your life, you've likely developed some habits in the process — even some that are less-than-ideal for both the customer and the restaurant. With that in mind, we assembled a collection of dos and don'ts for the drive-thru lane, and present those drive-thru habits you should (and shouldn't) do.

Should: Be prepared to order when your turn comes (as best as possible)

Generally speaking, the purpose of a drive-thru lane is to provide diners with a quick meal on the go. There's more to a drive-thru window's appeal, of course, but the main crux of the culinary concept is to provide food swiftly and efficiently. But this can't occur without customer cooperation, so being prompt with your order when your turn arrives is crucial. In other words, you should try and decide what you're going to order before pulling up to the speaker, to help keep the line moving.

Now, there is a slight caveat when it comes to this particular drive-thru habit though it's largely dependent on a particular restaurant's setup. After all, as one restaurant manager mentioned on Quora, a customer may not be able to see or read the menu before reaching the ordering spot. In that case, taking a few moments to review the menu and decide your order is perfectly fair — as long as you're careful not to take more than a minute or so in the process.

Then again, as a 2021 Reddit thread noted, if you're completely clueless about what you're looking to purchase when it's your turn to order? The best course of action may be to skip the drive-thru and head inside instead.

Shouldn't: Yell at restaurant employees

The notion that a person doesn't get paid enough to deal with an especially heinous professional task is a common one, particularly among fast food workers. Frankly, fast food workers being unfairly chastised by exceptionally rude (and self-centered) customers has become something of a cliché. But even if a person unloading their frustrations feels justified, it's never necessary to yell or scream at a drive-thru employee. So if you routinely find yourself raising your voice at the drive-thru, consider the Golden Rule – treat others the way you wish to be treated — and refrain from yelling at any drive-thru employees during future visits.

Look at it this way: Would you want someone screaming in your face while working at a (most likely) minimum-wage job? Of course not. No one deserves to be yelled at, regardless of their occupation. Frankly, then, keeping your emotions in check and your volume reasonable when conversing with drive-thru workers isn't some monumental act of charity — it's just basic civility.

Additionally, be sure to avoid yelling at the speaker when ordering, as one fast food employee mentioned on TikTok in 2022. After all, it's the 2020s — they can almost certainly hear you loud and clear, even in your normal tone of voice.

Should: Be ready to pull forward at all times

Depending on the time of day (or one's personal luck, we suppose), you may encounter a drive-thru line that's completely empty — in which case, feel free to take your time as needed. Of course, in our experience, you're just as likely to pull up to a line that's at least 10 cars deep, with a seemingly endless wait time ahead of you. Given the potential disparity in customers, then, it's imperative you remain aware of the environment when you pull into a drive-thru — and are always ready to move forward as the line inches along.

It's no wonder, really, why you should make this a permanent drive-thru habit. After all, no one enjoys being held up in line longer than necessary, particularly those drive-thru lines that seem endless – like the notoriously slow, industry-worst drive-thru wait times found at Chick-fil-A.

Since ensuring customers obtain a swift, accurate order is the name of the drive-thru game, it pays to remain engaged while in the drive-thru lane, and prepared to pull up as needed. So for your and your fellow customers' sake, be sure you're always ready to go with the flow — not clog up the line.

Shouldn't: Use multiple payment types for purchase

The perception of drive-thru lanes as a quick and efficient means for purchasing fast food has undoubtedly shifted over time — but that's not without merit. After all, according to a 2021 SeeLevel HX study, the average time a person spent in a drive-thru line increased by 25 seconds in 2021 compared to 2020. Of course, placing the blame solely on a restaurant or its staff for this reevaluation isn't entirely fair, nor is it always accurate. In fact, customers often share the blame — like those (generally) inconsiderate individuals who use multiple forms of payment for a single drive-thru order.

Now, like several other drive-thru habits you should and shouldn't do, there may be times when using more than one payment is relatively acceptable. Clearly, if you find yourself in a largely empty drive-thru line, and aren't unnecessarily delaying anyone in the process by using multiple payments? Knock yourself out by using a trio of debit cards.

But if you're in a line that seems likely to push past five minutes from start to finish, don't cause any additional headaches for your fellow customers or the restaurant staff. The functionality of a drive-thru line requires customers to be prompt with their payment to keep it flowing, after all. So unless you're in, say, a Popeye's drive-thru line by yourself, stick with one payment type when buying fast food from your car.

Should: Quickly double-check your order before leaving

Of all the drive-thru habits you should do or adopt, ensuring you always double-check your bag before driving away may be the most crucial — at least for customers. After all, few moments in life are more heartrending than arriving home after a trip to the drive-thru, only to find missing (or incorrect) items in your bag.

We're not trying to accuse fast food workers of willful ignorance, of course, or any sort of widespread incompetence. But considering the fast-paced, high-pressure nature of the fast food industry, the idea that your order may have been mistakenly packed, or an item was innocently forgotten, is hardly inconceivable.

Frankly, everyone makes mistakes — though, according to a 2022 Mashed survey, no chain makes more drive-thru mistakes than McDonald's. In other words, regardless of the drive-thru location, it's perfectly reasonable to take a quick inventory of your bag before pulling away. That way, if everything isn't precise, you can amend the issue right then and there rather than risk delayed animosity by discovering the problem later on.

Shouldn't: Add items to your order at pick-up window

We've always found the mechanics of a drive-thru operation fairly fascinating, but what can we say? We're dorks for all things food-related (like Tina Belcher (Dan Mintz) with boys, horses, and zombies on "Bob's Burgers"). Of course, even if you're less-than-enthralled by a drive-thru lane's behind-the-scenes setup, it's still helpful to understand its general functionality. That way, you can avoid drive-thru habits that make employees' lives infinitely more difficult — like adding items after you've already ordered and pulled up to the window.

Frankly, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand why this habit shouldn't be in your drive-thru repertoire. After all, a smooth drive-thru operation requires a restaurant's staff to prepare a customer's food before they pull up to the final window — meaning if you request any additional items at the pickup window? There's a better-than-average chance you'll be doing so after your original order has already been prepped and bagged.

Last-second additions tend to end up at the bottom of the kitchen crew's order queue as a result, according to a McDonald's employee on Quora. In other words, requesting additional items at the window will likely lead to unnecessary delays for you — along with everyone else in line.

Should: Keep the bag open to snag a few fries (and vent steam)

Raise your hand if you've ever received fries in a fast food meal from the drive-thru, but didn't eat a single one before reaching your final destination. Now, if you raised your hand, well ... we call shenanigans. After all, no one can reasonably resist the heavenly, greasy scent of fresh-cooked french fries — not while it literally swirls around them in an enclosed space. Thankfully, there's no reason to deny that urge, and munching on a few fries immediately after departing a drive-thru, then keeping the bag open? That's a worthy habit, indeed.

Enjoying the freshest fry possible isn't the only reason you should refrain from sealing your fries inside the bag, though. In fact, as the head of innovation for Lamb Weston, Deb Dihel, told Marketplace in 2019, leaving a bag with fries open allows "the steam (to) vent and not make the product soggy," which is "the worst case scenario for a french fry."

A hot, crispy fry may be unmatched foodwise, so making sure you enjoy a few fresh (and often scalding) fries after departing the drive-thru should be a top priority. Just make sure you keep the bag open while you nosh to help retain quality, and avoid a sad, floppy final fry in the process.

Shouldn't: Bang or knock on window to garner attention

There are certain unwritten rules we all need to abide by to avoid the complete collapse of civilized society. Unless you're willing to literally ditch modern society by moving into a shack in the woods and have no interaction with the rest of humanity? It's usually best to simply fulfill those social expectations when they arise. Along those lines, while it can be challenging at times to exhibit patience at the drive-thru, it's still necessary — meaning you shouldn't knock on a closed pickup window when waiting for your order.

Quite frankly, if a drive-thru window is closed, the message is clear: the staff is busy elsewhere — most likely prepping your order. Despite some folks' tendency to unfairly (and mistakenly) profile fast food workers as oafish malcontents, the hectic reality of the industry calls for kindness and compassion from customers (especially when it's particularly busy). No matter your intention, then, give a restaurant's staff the benefit of the doubt when the window's closed and simply wait your turn.

Additionally, a drive-thru window may be shut and unattended because a restaurant is actually closed, as several Starbucks employees noted on Reddit in 2019. If no one is greeting you on the intercom, be sure to double-check a store's hours if it appears unopened. And if no one takes your order from the speaker before you even reach the pickup window? Take the hint and wait for the business to open.

Should: Have one person speak and order for entire car

It's not easy working at a fast food chain. So anytime we can avoid making a fast food worker's job more difficult than necessary is worth considering. In that sense, if you're in a car with several people (each of who is ordering their own items), don't ask each person to shout their orders at the speaker. Rather, have a single person — ideally the driver — place the order for the entire car.

Now, obviously, the driver doesn't have the final say on what everyone orders, and you can still decide for yourself what you'd like to eat if you're a passenger in the drive-thru. But to keep things simplified for a restaurant's employees, stick to letting a single person speak (the one closest to the speaker), and resist the urge to have each passenger personally relay their order.

This is especially true with parents and young children, as one fast food worker wrote on Reddit in 2013. To be sure, teaching a child to be self-sufficient and individually confident by placing their own order is a commendable goal. But there's a time and place for everything, and if the Taco Bell drive-thru line is overflowing from the parking lot? Maybe skip Junior's life lesson and place the order yourself.

Shouldn't: Talk on your phone while ordering or interacting with staff

Does anyone out there need us to dive deeply into the reasons why one shouldn't talk on the phone while ordering at a drive-thru or when interacting with the staff? Probably not. Frankly, the pop culture trope of an obnoxious cell phone user (who loudly blathers on, oblivious to basic human courtesy, with little to no regard for the world or people around them) exists everywhere — and the drive-thru is no exception.

Would you want a drive-thru employee chit-chatting with a co-worker or another customer when you're ordering or picking up your food? Of course not. No one wants to feel ignored or marginalized, and considering how little effort it takes to be completely engaged with a drive-thru worker, it's worth displaying a genuine sense of respect for the person preparing, or serving, your food.

If you're on the phone with someone you absolutely, positively cannot stop speaking with, then a drive-thru trip can clearly wait. In fact, if you're speaking on the phone about something important, it might serve you well to avoid that convo in front of drive-thru workers entirely. After all, as numerous comments noted on a 2019 Reddit thread, drive-thru workers can often hear everything you say — even if that includes private information.

Should: Turn off windshield wipers while at pick-up window

They say when it rains, it pours. Of course, any fast food worker who's worked in the rain knows this all too well — particularly after encountering a customer who keeps their windshield wipers running while sitting at the pickup window. In fact, if you weren't aware windshield wipers' can toss water from your car into an open drive-thru window, well, you are now! So to avoid being an inconsiderate jackanape who douses a drive-thru crew (and the restaurant) in rain, you should turn off your wipers before reaching the pickup window.

Now, avoiding a situation where you accidentally drench an employee in rainwater is certainly important. But it's not simply the people working the drive-thru that'll end up wet, as a 2021 Reddit thread noted, but the store itself as well. This can then lead to lost time cleaning floors and equipment, which in turn slows service for customers, exacerbating a wholly avoidable problem.

To ensure a drive-thru remains dry and dandy while it's your turn at the window, be sure to adopt this drive-thru habit. It takes little to no effort, after all, so what's stopping you?

Shouldn't: Expect to be served if walking into drive-thru lane

If you've ever been in dire need of a late-night fast food meal (after the dining room was closed), yet didn't have a vehicle to use in the drive-thru, you know firsthand you can't simply walk through a drive-thru line (sans car) and expect to be served. After all, the potential safety issues surrounding a customer walking through a drive-thru lane — one designed for moving vehicles — means pedestrians are destined to come up empty at the drive-thru, as several comments noted on Reddit in 2015.

Of course, even if you weren't aware of the underlying safety concerns and causes restricting a walking customer from using a restaurant's drive-thru, it's not a tough nut to crack. It's all in the name, folks, and if a potential patron is incapable of, well, driving through the drive-thru, they shouldn't be shocked to be refused service.

How can you be sure you don't find yourself using this drive-thru faux pas? Simple: When you're going to the drive-thru, make sure you're always driving through it.