Secrets of fast food drive-thrus

There's nothing better than a smooth drive-thru experience. You're not standing in a line, you're not forced to listen to a restaurants' subpar music, and you're not watching another customer have a meltdown over his ice cream not being cold enough. Instead, you get to sit in an air-conditioned box and munch on some fries as your car slowly cruises home. Yup, whoever decided to use this scheme to sell us some burgers was an absolute genius.

However, even though most fast food places got around 70 percent of their earnings from their drive-thrus as of 2018, they're still keeping a lot of secrets about them hidden. Most of us don't know all the useful drive-thru life hacks, how they trick us, or what it's like to work at one of these counters. But never fear folks! Because this article is going to illuminate the best hush-hush drive-thru facts that are out there. That's right, read on to learn a bunch of drive-thru secrets that these chains may not want you to know.

Drive-thru workers can see you when you're ordering

As you pull up to the drive-thru in your pajamas or while picking your nose, you may feel like you're invisible. Unfortunately, this most likely isn't the case. In fact, there's probably a CCTV camera focused in on your hungover face. 

A Starbucks employee named Brittney revealed this fact in a viral TikTok she made. In this video, Brittney films two drive-thru customers while hilariously singing the words, "Thank you for pulling into Starbucks." When she starts to sing, you can see her patrons go bug-eyed from shock. After Brittney finishes her operatic moment, she asks for their order, and everyone has a cheeky giggle.

While this TikTok is hilarious, a lot of people online were surprised to discover that they were actually being watched as they ordered their fast food. One person named Lindsey commented, "OMG THEY CAN SEE US." Another commenter called Kamria Kaelin wrote, "I'm now SO embarrassed for all the times I made silly faces at the ordering screen." And as you scroll through the rest of replies, it become incredibly apparent that a lot of people didn't know that they could be seen at the drive-thru. 

So, the next time you're getting your drive-thru tacos, make sure your PJs are on fleek.

Drive-thrus are becoming slower

If you feel like your drive-thru experiences are taking longer than they used to, you're probably correct. In 2019, the average time it would take a customer to get their order from the window was 255 seconds, according to QSR. This was 20 seconds longer than a typical pick-up would take in 2018.

There are a couple of reasons that the drive-thru experience is slowing down. One of the main contributing factors to this service decelerating is the fact that fast food menus are becoming more complex. In 1940, McDonald's only sold nine products. And in February of 2020, the restaurant served over 60 items at some locations — and that's not even including drinks. There's just no way that one place can advertise that many meals and expect their service not to take longer. 

Customers are also picking up their mobile orders from the drive-thru lanes. And these peeps potentially make the ordering experience longer. The more humans picking up their food, the more congested that piece of tarmac will become. 

This info may not fill your stomach or quell your rage, but at least you'll know why drive-thru wait keeps getting longer.

There's a reason drive-thru employees ask you to pull ahead

Have you ever been waiting for your food in a drive-thru and were asked to pull your car forward? If you have, you know how vexing an experience this can be. However, there is a legitimately good reason why a fast food employee may tell you to pull ahead. 

A writer for Odyssey with fast food drive-thru experience broke down why a drive-thru worker will ask you to pull ahead. She said, "If you've ever been asked to 'pull ahead' while in the drive-thru, you know that it can be slightly frustrating, especially if you then see a bunch of other cars getting their food behind you. But here's the thing — they're still working on your food, too. It just so happens that your food is taking longer to prepare."

This means if you bought a whole meal, and the champ behind you ordered something small, you could be asked to drive forward. But don't lose your cool, your food is still coming. Everyone should remember this the next time they roll into a drive-thru.

Drive-thru employees are timed on how quickly they serve their customers

Being timed is stressful and unpleasant for anyone. Therefore, it wouldn't be much fun to be a drive-thru employee who's clocked during every shift they pull. And that's exactly what happens at most of these chains. One of the systems that fast-food restaurants use to monitor their workers is called ZOOM. This app records how long each vehicle takes to look at the menu, talk with a cashier, and pick up their food. According to ZOOM's ad, this tech helps eateries "provide smoother, faster service and a better customer experience." 

While a timer helps some drive-thrus deliver a great experience, it negatively impacts others. One Burger King employee on Reddit reported that they have to serve a customer in two-and-a-half minutes or less. Another poster from Starbucks said they're only given one minute per customer. This is impossible if a patron takes three minutes to order, then spends two minutes altering their meal at the window, and then waits another three minutes as the restaurant accommodates these changes. "When our bosses come out and see an 8 minute timer, they don't care if it was the customer's fault. They just assume you're slow and they lecture you."

This means that if you're ever getting food from a drive-thru, you should try to figure out what you're buying before the employee asks you. And try to avoid changing your order once it's been placed. Trust us, drive-thru workers everywhere will appreciate it.

Drive-thru menu designs encourage impulse purchases

The fact that drive-thrus are there to make restaurants money is the opposite of a secret. But just because you know this certitude doesn't mean you notice every trick that they're pulling. For example, drive-thru posters showing new items are backlit to inspire impulse purchases. These advertisements are actually designed to cause a customer to buy a new product or some dessert without really thinking through this decision. It's kind of remarkable yet scary that an illuminated placard can provoke us to change our spending habits.

Drive-thus are also planning on using new tech to encourage even more impulse purchases. In 2019, McDonald's spent $300 million acquiring a firm that makes personalized AI technologies. One of the items that this business developed can present individualized advertisements to each person that pulls up to their intercom. What this ad will display changes depending on the time, what the weather's like, and if the line's congested or not.

A couple of directors believe that this technology is going to make McDonald's customers impulsively spend their cash. Ricardo Belmar, a senior director at Infovista, said, "This is a great use of AI to improve the drive-through experience and generate more impulse buys at the point of sale. Smart move by McDonald's."

So, if you're ever at a drive-thru and craving an apple pie, ask yourself if you really need one. Because you may become a sucker that makes an impulse purchase.

An AI assistant may be taking your order

Speaking of artificial intelligence, this tech is already taking over our drive-thrus. In Feb of last year, The Washington Post reported that Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard had acquired a new system called Valyant AI. This tool is able to take orders, chat with customers, and never get frustrated at a bad patron.

While this AI sounds like a utopian dream, this technology certainly has its skeptics. In the same Washington Post article, it was mentioned that these AI tools may be harming more workers than they help. Erikka Knuti, communications director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, told The Washington Post, "Too many businesses treat customer service as a line-item cost instead of an investment. In addition to eliminating jobs, she said, removing people from transactions degrades the product that businesses are selling."

However, whether you're for or against AI-controlled drive-thrus, keep your ears peeled the next you're at that intercom. Who knows, maybe your favorite place has a robot assistant already.

Drive-thrus could have touchscreens in the future

In the year 3030 (or maybe even sooner), every drive-thru could have an AI assistant to take your order. Or they could all have another piece of tech that makes the intercom 100 percent redundant. And that device is the humble touchscreen.

But why would a fast food joint ditch the intercom and use a touchscreen instead? Joe Sheetz, the CEO of Sheetz, told Fast Company there were plenty of reasons to do so. Sheetz uses touchscreens inside their deli locations, and he believes touchscreen ordering encourages his customers to try new items. He also says that they can reduce the number of incorrect order complaints and retain available data about each customer. In 2014, Sheetz started testing this screen at different drive-thru locations, as well.

And it's not just Sheetz using this tech. Subway also has touch-screens at some of their drive-thru locations. According to Kevin Kane, a spokesperson for the franchise, around 200 stores in the United States featured one of these screens back in 2017.

Your cup holder can transform into a drive-thru plate

Since the dawn of the drive-thru, it has been difficult to eat your food while steering. Your fries can slip everywhere, your burger juice can soak into your lap, and your drink can sticky up the dashboard. This plateless experience can ruin the best of nights. It may even push you to dine-in the next time you're craving some potato.

In an amazing TikTok video posted by c1loves, she presents the world her drive-thru secret. C1loves starts this vid off by showing us the drink, the fries, and the burger that she purchased. She then proceeds to put her beverage into a cup holder. This is followed by c1loves opening the burger box. There's a small slit down the middle of this unfolded container that she pushes the drink's straw through. The burg's case perfectly balances on the top of her bevy. At this point, c1loves completes her masterpiece by pouring the fries into the other side of the box. 

And she's not the only one to come up with something like this — a similar drive-thru hack went viral with Chick-fil-A fans in early 2019.

Not to be melodramatic, but these drive-thru innovators may deserve a Noble Peace Prize. This life hack is going to save a countless number of fries from falling onto car floors. And is there anything on this planet that's truly more important than that?

McDonald's has a secret drive-thru menu item

Even though McDonald's has a ridiculously big menu, it also has an exclusive drive-thru item that many people don't know about — and that brilliant product is their ice. Now, buying frozen water from McDonald's may seem like the worst life hack in the world. But it's genuinely not. Their cubes are actually pretty high quality.

There are a lot of legit advantages to using this ice. According to one McDonald's ice fan who spoke with Pure Wow, what makes this frozen water better than other brands is its transparentness and its refreshing vibe. And as another Mashed writer noted, "Probably the most notable perk is that the ice isn't a frozen block in a bag, so there's no need to slam the bag on the ground or use your keys as a makeshift ice pick to break it up." Reportedly, the bags of ice from McDonald's cost between $1 and $2, though it seems to differ by location, and you don't even have to go inside to get them — they'll hand them over right through the drive-thru window.

If this hack sounds lit, but you live nowhere near a McDonald's, don't panic. You can also purchase sacks of ice from the drive-thrus at Dunkin', Burger King, and Arby's.

People have hacked into drive-thru intercoms

One would imagine that a drive-thru's intercom system would be incredibly secure. However, this is not always the case — or at least it didn't used to be. 

Kevin Mitnick, one of the world's greatest hackers, once pulled off the ultimate stunt by hacking a fast food drive-thru intercom. "At 16 years old, I worked out how to hack McDonald's," said Kevin. "And it wasn't for a free Big Mac." During this time, Mitnick was interested in magic and amateur radio. "So I worked how I could take over McDonald's drive-up windows remotely. So, when customers would drive up to place their order they'd get me, rather than the guy inside McDonald's with the headset. So you could imagine at 16 years old how much fun you could have."

After Kevin had set up his equipment, he then proceeded to prank the bejeebers out of McDonald's and their patrons. "Customers would drive up, I'd take their order, I'd say 'Oh, you're the hundredth customer today! Please drive forward, your order's absolutely free!'" Unsurprisingly, the McDonald's manager didn't find this practical joke all that amusing.