The Unspoken Drive-Thru Rule You Should Never Break

The drive-thru was one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. There's nothing better than ordering food and having someone hand it to you without even needing to leave your car (well, except maybe delivery). It's the perfect road trip snack or the best way to cap a long drive home.

Though it's hard to find someone who hasn't experienced a drive-thru at least once, you might not have realized that drive-thru etiquette actually exists. It turns out there are unwritten rules on how to properly order your food via drive-thru, from the moment you reach the speaker until you're happily driving away with that burger and fries.

At the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, drive-thru visitor numbers were at an all-time high, per NPD. And while the busiest lines still move relatively fast, there are some instances you might find yourself at a standstill. If you're wondering why your order is backed up, it could be because someone ahead of you doesn't know how to follow the rules, or doesn't care to.

Always know what you're ordering when it's time

It's no secret that you often can't get a good look at the fast-food menu until you're parked right next to it and about to order. But there is one rule you should always follow when you're ordering from the car: Know what you want before you get to the front of the line. 

Most people who have worked at a drive-thru are no stranger to the "uh" and "uhm" uttered by plenty of customers as they frantically try to decide what they're craving. However, The Takeout reports that not knowing what to order upon pulling up to the speaker is one of the biggest ways customers add time to everyone's drive-thru experience. An easy fix could be to pull up the menu on your phone ahead of time if you can't see it while waiting in line. 

Looking at the menu beforehand could also help answer some questions you might have (such as whether or not substitutions are allowed), which helps to avoid spending too much time at the ordering speaker.

Avoid these other drive-thru mistakes

There are a few other important rules to follow at the drive-thru that will help the process run smoothly. The Takeout suggests you avoid being too chatty with drive-thru employees. Though it's always important to be kind, when the restaurant has a long line, most workers aren't interested in having a conservation that might only extend the process. Rather, be cordial, place your order, and keep the line moving.

Tastemade offers another piece of advice that, while it might seem like a no-brainer, plenty of people actually need: Make sure you have your wallet. We've all experienced that moment of panic when we realize we've left our money at home. However, noticing it after you've already placed your food order isn't the most ideal time.

Additionally, once you place your order, stick with it. Tastemade advises not adding additional items to your order once you arrive at the pickup window; the process isn't as simple as you'd think. Because drive-thrus run like well-oiled machines, changing an order after you've placed it throws a wrench in the system, often resulting in a manager getting involved.

Drive-thru times are longer than ever

At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember when ordering from a drive-thru is to have patience. CNBC reported in September 2021 that drive-thru times are longer than ever, with the average time having increased by 25 seconds in 2021 from the year prior.

Another study by SeeLevel HX found that drive-thru windows have also become worse at perfecting orders. Back in 2020, the overall order accuracy was at 87%, or nearly nine out of 10 orders being made correctly. However, by 2021, that saw a 2% dip. CNBC reported that Chick-fil-A was named the chain with the most accurate orders, followed by Taco Bell. Third place saw a three-way tie between Burger King, Arby's, and Carl's Jr. The study also cites a few reasons why drive-thru times might have grown. Longer menus have become more popular, which could slow down the overall processes in the kitchen. Plus, with so many restaurants short-staffed, cooking times might have become longer as a result of orders being filled at a slower rate.

Drive-thru visits as a whole have increased drastically since the pandemic started. Visits in August 2011 were 11% higher than they were in August 2019; the scare of catching COVID-19 may have led more to opt for the drive-thru lane versus dining indoors.