Workers reveal what it's really like working at a McDonald's drive-thru

One of the best qualities of fast food is that it is usually fast, as the name suggests. The drive-thru is the location for ultimate expediency, especially in the case of McDonald's. The restaurant prides itself on its drive-thru prowess, which it's been developing since its first drive-thru debuted in 1975. All that effort must have worked, as Eat This, Not That! named McDonald's one of the eight best drive-thrus in 2020.

Yet all of the technology and drive-thru innovation in the world would amount to nothing if it weren't for the people who actually work in said drive-thrus. They're the ones taking your order, handing you change, and pouring your drinks — sometimes all at once. It's a role often taken for granted, but life would be a lot harder for anyone in a rush if it weren't for McDonald's drive-thru employees. 

Still, when's the last time you considered what it's actually like to work as a McDonald's drive-thru employee? From the customers who are far ruder than indoor patrons to the people who drive off without their order, working the drive-thru is no small task. Here's what it's really like to work the McDonald's drive-thru, based on comments from employees and former workers themselves.

Employees need to learn how to understand customers who have no idea what they want

Working the McDonald's drive-thru isn't exactly like deciphering the Rosetta Stone every time someone pulls up, but it's not always easy, either. On Reddit, one worker described how frustrating it is when customers say a menu item incorrectly, such as when they request a $2.00 milkshake rather than simply ordering by the type and size.

"It's like people have no idea what they want, and expect us to automatically know," the employee explained, adding, "If you order a sausage muffin don't ask if there's egg on it when you can clearly see on the menu there's a sausage egg muffin as well. Then again it's like customers never read off the menu anymore with the ridiculous questions they have."

Another employee who was tired of experiencing the same came up with a solution: "It used to bother me but now I just fill in the blanks when the customers are too dumb/drunk to use their words," they commented in a response to the original post. "Sometimes I 'suggest' the whole order to really drunk customers, take the money right out of their wallet, etc."

Whether the customer is saying things wrong on purpose or sincerely doesn't know how to pronounce something on the menu, drive-thru workers need to come to work every day with their ears and comprehension skills in prime shape.

Even with training, working the McDonald's drive-thru takes experience

From the outside looking in, working the McDonald's drive-thru might not seem all that difficult. For people who are thrown into the position, however, it's quickly understood that it takes more than basic training to do the job right with the lowest amount of stress possible. It takes experience.

In a plea for help on Reddit, a McDonald's employee new to the drive-thru asked how to make the position "a more pleasing experience" in spite of mumbling customers and chaotic multi-tasking.

Workers who have been through the wringer quickly chimed in. "Experience is a huge part of it," one person wrote. They added that "Being in the drive through (as cashier or order taker) often involves having multiple tasks going on simultaneously, and that can be very challenging to get the hang of, and is largely a unique function that no other role in the store has."

It won't be a breeze to get to that point, though, and you may not be sitting pretty even once you're there. Another worker in the Reddit thread said that "there's always gonna be people doing dumb stuff." Ultimately, only time and experience can prepare you for things like a customer who attempts to pay for a $30.00 order with a plastic bottle full of change.

McDonald's workers overhear lots of private conversations

Employees aren't listening only when you make your order. In fact, between the time a customer rolls up to the drive-thru speaker and when they reach the pick-up window, employees hear everything. Yes, really. Some drive-thru workers can even see you. As some McDonald's employees revealed, this can lead to some pretty interesting anecdotes.

"When you're sitting at a drive-thru speaker, we can always hear everything – even if you think your interaction is over," one person explained in r/LifeProTips. "Be careful what personal details you reveal to strangers."

People who have worked the McDonald's drive-thru added their own experiences to the thread, showing just how often drive-thru workers are forced into eavesdropping, even if they'd rather not hear what the customers have to say. Sometimes it's people singing to the radio when they should stick to singing in the shower, while other times it's someone who's vocally mad at themselves for forgetting their wallet. Then, there are the less innocuous things that workers overhear.

"Most of them are parents telling kids to shut it before they give them something to cry about," reported an employee. Other less-charming overheard conversations include parents, "threatening to make kids walk home if they don't hurry up and pick things, or we don't need any f–ing ice cream type conversations." 

McDonald's drive-thru customers are far more rude than dine in ones

There's something about a face to face conversation that has the power to make people treat others as human beings, at least normally. However, the drive-thru lacks that face to face quality. Some unfortunate McDonald's workers have learned the hard way that this lack can hurt them.

On Reddit, one employee theorized that it's "because it's much easier to be rude to someone behind a headset you can't see rather than talking to them face to face." There are some people who will be rude to an unseen worker no matter what. On a brighter note, the same employee noted that there are also some truly lovely customers who understand the pressures of the drive-thru.

It's not always someone being straight up nasty with unnecessary comments, either. Sometimes customers are rude in more subtle ways. In another Reddit thread about bad drive-thru etiquette, one employee pleaded for drive-thru customers to stop smoking as they roll through. Another worker asked people to quit wasting everyone's time by debating what order in the drive-thru lane. Other egregious examples of the drive-thru rudeness workers regularly face include customers who tell workers to wait so they can finish a phone call and people who drive away before they finish their order. Then, there are patrons who order something and then verbally abuse the workers when they see the cost, as if the McDonald's drive-thru employees are the ones setting prices.

There's lots of pressure to keep McDonald's drive-thru times down

McDonald's drive-thru employees know the value of speed, and not just in a wishy-washy, corporate-speak type of way. Case in point: the tricks employees must use in order to give the appearance of a constantly moving drive-thru.

In response to a customer question on Reddit about why patrons are often asked to pull into a parking spot after ordering through the drive-thru, employees explained that they're often under high pressure to keep wait times ultra-low. "A common reason for pulling forward when no one is there is to keep the average drive thru time down," one worker explained. "Each car is timed from the moment they leave the order board so if they park you the order time does not up their daily average."

Another worker added that they're encouraged to fulfill each order in under three and a half minutes. Stores in certain regions even compete with each other for the lowest time, they said. Drive-thru speed is something that McDonald's prides itself on. In 2019, the chain cut the average time by 20 seconds through a variety of measures, from simplifying the menu to adding timers, according to Restaurant Dive. In 2020, Restaurant Dive followed up by reporting that Mcdonald's was able to once again cut their drive-thru, this time by nearly 30 seconds.

McDonald's employees have to deal with people who walk through the drive-thru

For a certain type of person, there comes a point in life they decide that it's a good idea to walk through the drive-thru, instead of going through in a car as the good designers originally intended. Maybe it's because they are intoxicated or the dine-in lobby is closed. Perhaps they misguidedly think it's funny. Whatever the reason, McDonald's drive-thru employees need to be prepared to deal with a walk-up customer, though they dread the occasion.

On Reddit, someone asked "Is it rude to walk through the McDonald's drive-thru? I'm drunk and hungry and the lobby is closed." They soon got the resounding and decisive answer of "yes."

A former Mcdonald's worker explained in another thread that "the reason you need to have a car is because there is a magnetometer under the call box. Unless you've got about 50 lbs of metal in your leg, the box simply won't alert the workers inside that anyone is there."

This isn't to say it can't be done. If someone walks between two cars that trip off the sensor, they might sneak in for an order of their own. However, that's a serious safety risk for the customer, not to mention a liability risk for the restaurant if an oblivious driver runs into the walk-up patron. Officially speaking, McDonald's won't serve walk-up customers in the drive-thru.

McDonald's drive-thru workers have to a learn how to avoid awkward pauses

Working the McDonald's drive-thru is one of those jobs that totally demands an employee's attention at certain times of day and night, then becomes an absolute bore the rest of the time. Sometimes, this means that drive-thru workers are forced to find their own form of entertainment, both to avoid boredom and to escape the occasional awkwardness of a silent customer.

On the awkwardness front, workers lean on a couple of stock phrases, according to one employee who posted on Reddit. Said tricks include asking customers if they want a receipt, or simply repeating their order back to them. The boredom can be a little harder to manage, though, if the employees in a r/Mcdonalds thread are to be believed.

"If I'm bored I line up all the sauce packets and sort out stuff and face things the same way," one worker wrote. "Like I'll line up all the sugar packets and make them face all the same way. Or stock everything. Or clean something that doesn't necessarily need to be cleaned but could be cleaned." Others mentioned that they memorize the location of everything in the store or clean as an "enjoyable" way to kill time. 

Dropped change could lead to a smaller McDonald's paycheck

At every McDonald's drive-thru, workers are often stuck in a brief in-between period of time while they wait for a driver to pull up to the window. When the customer finally makes it, there is always that yawning abyss between the pickup window and the car just waiting to catch fallen change. When this happens, that missing change is often on the worker's paycheck.

"At my store if we are more than a dollar short then it does start coming off the paycheck and if we're consistently short, even by just a few cents, then we'll get written up," an employee explained on Reddit. Another drive-thru worker added that customers generally don't care about the change when it's just coins, but people will get out of their car for a dollar.

It's not just McDonald's locations in the United States where employees may be faced with a paycheck deduction for dropped — and therefore missing — change. Another drive-thru worker at a Canadian location noted that their manager will let them off if it's just a couple of dollars, but any more than that and employees get a talking-to about theft.

"Under an older, kinder manager it was just considered cost of business, and usually my drawer would be up by a few dollars anyway from people that refuse change," one employee explained. "Under the newer manager she actually does take out of your paycheck if it's $1+."

McDonald's drive-thru workers are pressured to upsell

There would be no McDonald's without strong sales. Makes sense, since that's the point of owning a business, right? For the workers at the drive-thru, however, that need to continuously make a profit can put them in the awkward position of upselling as much as possible.

On Reddit, an employee noted their new manager posted signs stating that workers aren't allowed to say "is that all" or "anything else" at the conclusion of an order. This brought up the question of what drive-thru employees were supposed to say to wrap up their interactions with customers. The answer, according to multiple other employees, was to try and get customers to add just one more item to their meals.

"This is where you throw in the upsell," another employee explained. "'Did you want to upsize your meal today?' 'Would you like an apple pie with that?' If they say yes, add the item, total the order & direct them to the first window. If they say no, total the order as it is & direct them to the first window."

Upselling, where restaurants effectively trick you into spending more money, is not standard across all locations. Some workers replied to the Reddit thread by saying that they're not allowed to upsell at all. But, for many employees who responded, the art of the upsell with an apple pie or drink is common practice.

McDonald's drive-thru workers have to deal with forgetful customers

The thing about serving customers who stay in a moving vehicle is that they can take that vehicle and keep on going without, you know, actually picking up their order. This, as you might imagine, can put the McDonald's drive-thru worker in a bit of an awkward position. When this happened to one McDonald's employee, they asked for other stories of this happening on Reddit. Turns out it's not as uncommon as someone who has ever hungrily ordered from the drive-thru might think. How could someone abandon their food? In some cases, the reasons some customers leave suddenly are surprisingly reasonable.

"One memorable case happened where the guest got a call that her husband was in the hospital," one employee related. "Came back a few days later to simply apologize for driving off and causing confusion, I was able to match up the order and still refunded the order then." Another worker recalled a person who ordered a Coca-Cola, paid, and then promptly drove away. They thought the customer who had such a simple request would come back, but they never showed up throughout the worker's entire eight-hour shift.

"Happens all the time, just let your manager know they drove off and hopefully will come back or call," added one employee. "At my store we just give them fresh food without ringing it up when they come back." At least it's better than someone not leaving the drive-thru.

The late night rush is very real for McDonald's drive-thru workers

Few people understand the pressure of getting a last-minute, late-night McDonald's drive-thru order as much as Uber Eats drivers do. Unfortunately, "quick" isn't always a word that can be used because the rush is real, even in the wee hours of the morning. Take one Uber Eats driver, who posted on Reddit that they waited "in the drive thru line for a single fruit parfait for 25+ minutes." Though, really, isn't this one on the person who ordered delivery for a single McDonald's fruit parfait? Hopefully, they at least remembered to tip their Uber Eats driver.

Unfortunately for anyone with the late-night munchies, after-hours orders can take some time, both because of regular nighttime rushes and fewer workers. One employee posted in r/IAmA that the busiest hours are between 10:00 p.m. and closing. And no, the worker added, they do not judge people who come through at 2:00 a.m. and order a disgusting amount of nuggets. Who do they judge instead? Just the people who order "healthy" foods at the late-night hour.