Have We Reached A Saturation Point On Drive-Thrus?

Depending on where you live, you can get anything from food to cash to drugs (prescription) to liquor and porn via a drive-thru window. But is it possible that we may be experiencing diminishing returns on these supposedly convenient services?

One town in New Jersey is reportedly considering a ban on any new drive-thru businesses, saying they have become a traffic nuisance — and they may be on to to something.

After all, is the drive-thru any faster than going in to the store? That likely depends on the type of business and the time of day you’re drive-thru-ing.

In our experience, going to the drive-thru at a fast food joint during morning or evening drive time can be a significantly longer wait than simply running in and going to the counter.

This is especially true when someone in front of you has an issue with their order. Drive-thrus are efficient at ordering, taking payment and handing out food until someone complains about a missing hash brown or not getting correct change. This causes the conveyor belt to stack up and can result in angry customers — some of whom will then go inside and start an actual fight.

But inside most businesses with drive-thru lanes, there are at least two lines open to serve customers. So when there is a problem with an order, it shouldn’t back things up for everyone else.

This also leads to a bigger question of disconnecting the customer from the retail employee. When you step up to a counter inside of a business, you can usually see why you might not be getting immediate service. It might not be a good reason, but this bit of knowledge is still better than sitting at a drive-thru speaker wondering if anyone knows you’re alive.

And sometimes that lack of face-to-face interaction can free up the inner A-hole inside either the customer and/or the worker, freeing each to perhaps not be as polite as they would be if they were looking the other in the eye.

Beyond all of this, drive-thrus can take up a significant chunk of real estate that might be better occupied by expanding the building, or parking spots, or even just some pretty shrubs.

Of course, for parents with young children, all of these points might mean absolutely nothing.

Drive-thrus allow parents to avoid the repeated buckling/unbuckling process for each child. It also means they don’t have to worry about kids acting up or getting distracted while trying to deposit a check or pick up dad’s prescription refill. And you never have to worry about feeling like you’re doing a bad thing by leaving your older child in the car while you run in to grab some milk.

And, going back to the Fotomat era, a handful of businesses have done very well by becoming drive-thru only (or at least primarily drive-thru), as it allows them to keep overhead costs down and minimize staffing needs. Thus, a ban on new drive-thrus could inhibit innovation or drive some businesses to other towns.

Like many of the issues we cover, this one has no cut-and-dry answer, but it’s definitely something we think is worth having a public discussion about. And so we open the floor up to you, the readers of Consumerist, to drive up to the comments window and drop off your thoughts.

Comments

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  1. jvanbrecht says:

    I never use the drive thru anymore, it takes too long. I’m always in and out of where ever I am going long before any of the cars I see in line even make it to the ordering devices.

    • RandomHookup says:

      I find that fascinating. People will sit in the drive thru lane, maybe even out into the road, when the parking lot is half empty. I’m not sure of the logic there.

      • redskull says:

        Yep. If I see 4 or more cars in the drive thru I park and go inside. I honestly can’t imagine sitting in a line of 25 cars at a drive thru, but I see people do it every day.

        • Anne Noise says:

          My friend always, always wants a milkshake from Steak n Shake, but the line is seriously always 10+ cars long here, and it never deters him. The one time we went in, we were told they were no longer doing to-go orders for the day! At dinner time!

        • Martha Gail says:

          Which is why I don’t mind there being a drive thru. As long as people are lazy-asses, I can run in and grab my stuff more quickly. Get rid of the drive thru, those people have to come inside and stand with me.

          • RandomHookup says:

            I’ve seen a couple of places where the drive thru line ends up blocking the parking lot so no one can get in to park. They can’t figure out they are in the way and it would be faster to just go inside.

      • nbs2 says:

        The logic is the following:

        *approach the establishment*
        There is a line for the drive through, but the lot is empty. It looks pretty nice out today, and the kids have been pretty good. Ok, I think the time I save not sitting plus the gas savings will make the time to take the kids in worth it, especially since today they are behaving and I don’t need to stress about watching them. Oh no! One of them is asleep. It isn’t going to be worth waking him up and pissing him off at an establishment, so we’ll have to get the food to go. Not a big deal. Oh crap – there are a lot of people driving through the parking lot, one of them will be sure to call the police in the five minutes that I’m in the establishment. It isn’t worth dealing with that, either. I could go home and make something – hmm….I’m not sure what we have stocked that is ready to cook and would be ready in a few minutes, and I know the sleeper will be hungry when he wakes up and the awake one is pretty hungry, and I did tell her that we would be getting a treat today. I give up.
        *sit in the drive through, get stuff, go home*

        • redskull says:

          But your logic doesn’t apply to the 25 people sitting alone in their cars in the drive thru line at the McDonald’s I pass by every morning. Not a kid to be seen anywhere.

          • nbs2 says:

            Yeah….

            That’s just lazy. Even with the ripping heat here in Houston, it isn’t that hard to get out of your car. The only places where staying in the car is merited is places that don’t have a place to go (like Sonic or Checkers)

            • MaytagRepairman is stealing socks while fixing your dryer. says:

              The McDonald’s stores in my area make it a waste of time to go inside. They complete one counter order for every four drive through orders.

        • RvLeshrac says:

          Yeah, the parents who roast their kids alive were always “just going to be five minutes.”

      • inadequatewife says:

        It’s freezing cold outside, the parking lot is covered in snow and ice. I’d much rather sit in the drive thru a little longer than end up slipping and dropping my tray of beverages.

        If the weather is nice, I’m more likely to go inside because there’s more chance of my order being correct on the first attempt.

      • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

        on days when my MS is acting up and my legs don’t work so well, i’ll sit as long as it takes for the drive through. but if i’m feeling fine, i often find it much faster to just park and go in.
        generally i wouldn’t expect most of the people lined up in the drive through to be disabled though.

        of course at the credit union, the drive through is handled by the same tellers so they just take turns – help the line outside, help the line inside, help the line outside…. so it takes just as long for everyone.

  2. 2nd party post dated counter check says:

    At the drive through for fast food I figure I have about a 30% chance of the order being right. What I dread is being told, “just pull over there and we will bring you your order”. To me that is the ‘Pull over there and we will forget you” spot. A factor you miss though is weather. If it is too hot or cold, raining or snowing, people prefer the drive through. Slow or not, some people are not getting out of their cars.

    • Scooter McGee says:

      I love when it’s a light rain and the drive-thru is wrapped around the building. I’ll run inside and try to walk in front of the same car both going in and coming out, making sure to wave at the driver both times.

    • Mr. Bill says:

      Just tell them no I will just stay here. watch how fast you get your order.

      • elangomatt says:

        Were you the guy at White Castle last weekend who ordered two cases of sliders in the drive through and refused to pull to one of the “drive through waiting spots”? They can’t just press a button and magically have your food ready, but they can get other people through when their food is already ready.

        Honestly, I’ve never had to sit in one of those drive thru temp spots for more than about a minute no matter whether it is McDonalds or any other major drive thru place. The only place with longer waits is Culvers and they give you a plackard with a number on it and it is SOP to have you pull into a temp spot if there is a line.

      • RvLeshrac says:

        No faster than before. But you probably shouldn’t eat it.

  3. josephbloseph says:

    Nobody in Everett, MA knows how to drive. In the morning rush, this terrible situation is compounded by idiots rolling out of the Dunkin Donuts drive thru into traffic. I’m all for places that have a decently sized parking lot to route drive thru traffic through, but if the drive thru dumps out into the street, it’s no good.

  4. Mambru says:

    Crack a window in your SUV while you get your non-fat mocha soy Latte fix.

  5. Deep Cover says:

    I have a 4 y/o and a 5 month old…the drive thru is MY FRIEND!!!

  6. kaptainkk says:

    Just based on the fact that drive-thrus are terrible for the environment should basis enough for them to be banned everywhere. No wonder the US is the fattest country in the world. A bunch of damn lazy people that can’t go park their car and walk in to buy that 1000 calorie cheeseburger or vanilla latte.

    • cspschofield says:

      Ah, the cry of the Urban buttinski; “Any behavior that doesn’t fit my narrow conception of Right must be banned!”

      Please go p*ss up a rope and stand under while it dries.

    • Gertie says:

      I’m sure you will stand up and cheer and not complain when the invasion of Moms with Small Children hits your bank, pharmacy, or coffee shop. Here we come! Hey, can you help me with all these bags and carry our drinks? I’m not sure I can trust the 2-year-old with my coffee while I carry the baby and my bag.

      Or, while I’m waiting for my son’s prescription to be filled for his nasty bronchitis, you won’t mind if he coughs all over you in line, right? He’s only a toddler and doesn’t really know better. Those green trails coming out of his nostrils? Oh yeah, sorry for that. We came inside to avoid being damn lazy people.

      You are discussing a sensitive and important issue with the bank teller? So sorry my kid just crapped in his diaper as I stand in line waiting for my turn. Look at the bright side! I probably burned 35 calories or so schlepping them inside in the rain. Your worries about the condition of my body and my BMI are laid to rest!

      Yes, moms and dads of the world! Let’s give them what they want.

      • aaronx says:

        *standing ovation*

      • who? says:

        I live in a place that doesn’t have much in the way of drive through windows. Or parking, for that matter. So the kids are usually right there with the parents at the teller window. I’ve yet to see anything that you describe.

        • EarthAngel says:

          That doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

          Our old pharmacy didn’t have a drive thru. DH was deployed and DS (2 at the time) was sick with chicken pox. I’m sure you’d much rather prefer we use a drive thru. I’m sure the store clerks enjoyed cleaning up vomit in aisle 2. I tried to make it to the bathroom in time. Sorry!

        • AtlantaCPA says:

          You may have been standing next to a kid with something contagious and not known it. Luckily you didn’t catch what they had (unless you did after a week of incubation and never put it together b/c the kid didn’t look sick).

        • RvLeshrac says:

          I see it *all the goddamned time*, and we have PLENTY of drive-throughs.

    • finbar says:

      It’s not that cut and dry. For Smog producing air pollutants (ROG & NOx), the emissions associated with stopping and restarting your car (especially older cars) are worse than if you had let the car idle in the drive through.

      You do save fuel by parking and going in, consequently reducing the Green House Gas emissions associated with the trip. However eliminating a drive through requires an increase in the size of the parking lot, thereby increasing the amount of paved area which increases the facilities on impacts on storm water generation and the urban heat-island.

      In the end it’s difficult to argue empirically that driving and parking is better for the environment than using the drive through.

      If you want more info Google “Horton Drive through study.” Horton’s a researcher from Canada who’s done some work on the topic.

      • elangomatt says:

        Doesn’t the extra pollutants in your first paragraph have something to do with how long the car is off before starting it up again. I’ve always thought that starting up the car from cold gave off a lot more pollutants because things like the catalytic converter aren’t heated up yet. Going into a fast food restaurant for 5 minutes shouldn’t allow that to cool off too much so I doubt there would be much increased air pollutants from starting up the car again.

        • finbar says:

          True, hence my point about “especially older cars.” If an individual is driving a late model car and the engine doesn’t get a chance to cool when they park the difference between parking and using the drive through becomes negligible.

    • dru_zod says:

      Yeah, ban ‘em all! Screw the people who legitimately can’t walk or get in and out of vehicles easily. Let ‘em do without drive-thru banking and prescription pick-up windows.

  7. TheMansfieldMauler says:

    How about letting businesses and customers make up their own minds about what works for them? It’s a radical new concept.

    • finbar says:

      Maybe because the business owners and customers arn’t the only one’s impacted by drive-throughs. They can have negative impacts on traffic, pedestrian and bicycle movement, and residential neighbors. I lived near an all night taco bell back in the day, it was not rare to have some d-bag playing loud music late at night as they purchased their “fourth meal.”

      • TheMansfieldMauler says:

        I don’t disagree, but what you’re talking about is more of a zoning and usage issue. Of course some places might not be suitable for a drive-thru because of traffic issues, and I don’ think you would get much argument about that. At the same time, most businesses aren’t going to try to open a drive-thru in those places anyway because it would negatively impact their ability to serve customers.

        But all the rest of that philosophising up there in that article – about “disconnecting the customer” and lack of face-to-face interaction, and even use of real estate (with deference to the above mention of traffic congestion)…well, that’s just a bunch of crap no one cares about. If people want face-to-face interaction, they’ll go somewhere that provides it. If businesses want to be able to physically “connect” with the customer, they’ll provide the means.

        • finbar says:

          Ahh, I think I misunderstood your point to mean somthing like “its their business they should be allowed to do whatever they want without regard for the impacts on others.”

          I agree, the philosphizing about the lack of face to face interaction shouldn’t be a factor in approving/disaprooving a business with a drive though. Things like whether or not that drive through will negativly impact the existing house behind it should be.

  8. dush says:

    If there’s a line of cars you park. If there are no cars then drive-thru. Seems rather intuitive.

  9. Platypi {Redacted} says:

    All I wanted to say is Leo Getz. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWfaiTLPUKQ

    Caution, language NSFW.

  10. aaronx says:

    They’re fine as long as they’re implemented using common sense. On my drive to work I have to get past a small Dunkin Donuts whose drive-thru is about 4 car lengths from a busy road. During the morning commute, the road is completely blocked by people both trying to take right-hand and left-hand turns to get in line.

  11. Geekybiker says:

    Unless you come at an off time its almost always quicker to go inside. My one exception seems to be the pharmacy. You get quicker service than the counter.

    • JollySith says:

      I stopped going to my local pharmacy (and let their manager and CVS corporate know why) for just that reason. On at least 3 occasions I have been left standing at the counter to pick up scrips while at least 5 people in the drive through lane have been able to place orders or pick up their own meds.

    • AtlantaCPA says:

      I’ve seen that and never understood why they want to blatantly screw the inside customers.

  12. do-it-myself says:

    New Jersey? It would take 5 “Jersey” U-turn areas to get to one anyway.

    The only drive-throughs I have trouble with are the Taco Bell/KFC ones. People who order KFC food in it take forever.

    A couple days ago I encountered a renovated McDonald’s with a newly added double drive through (just 2 ordering areas that feed back into one line at the windows). There was a truck in front of me whose rear end was just past the order box, so I couldn’t pull up window side to it. There was at least a 5ft gap between vehicles but I could hear the woman saying ” What would you like to order Hello? Hello?” over and over till I pulled up.

    Speaking of innovation, you know how McDonald’s and other places now say a generic “Welcome to X, would you like to try an order of Z today?”….well now it’s a per-recorded message. It was quite a shock, because I thought it was a real person, until it went from male to female. Quite hilarious, but if I worked there, I would be thankful that I had a recording to up-sell for me.

    • Silverhawk says:

      I know it probably shouldn’t, but it drives me crazy when people can’t pull up in line. I’m talking about the ones where it’s obvious there is so much empty space in front of them you could park a Mini or a couple of Smart cars in between them and the next vehicle.

    • benedictss says:

      i am so glad that the mcd’s i work at doesn’t use the automated messages. there are certain “peaks” during the day when we would have to turn them off anyway. i always thought they were a bit of a nuisance to actual order takers.

  13. sorta savvy consumer says:

    And that person you are giving your order to, might not even be in the restaurant. It is a growing trend (the call center where I live is expanding) to have the drive thru order taken at a remote call center.

    • StatusfriedCrustomer says:

      Sir, here is your Royale with cheese- I mean Quarter Pounder!

    • benedictss says:

      we had a call center in texas taking orders for us for the first year or so i worked for mcd’s. i cannot tell you how many customers were angry at US for taking their order wrong…

  14. pgr says:

    I NEVER go thru the drive-in one. It’s always easier and usually quicker to actually go in the place and order.

  15. madanthony says:

    I almost always go in, but that’s mostly because I have a coffee addiction and pea-sized bladder, and it’s hard to use the bathroom from the drive-thru.

  16. cantiloon says:

    As mentioned above, most of NJ is incredibly inconvenient as it is with busy street after busy where you have to turn right to get left and they’re filled with chain restaurants, mini-malls and liquor stores. Drive thrus are only a tiny part of the problem and fixing it is not really feasible at this point.

    Maybe the ban is really just because that (likely crappy) little town already has more than it’s fair share of Dunkins and McDonalds and are just using this as a means to get them to stop building them there.

  17. wynterbourne says:

    Ok, who even goes out for porn anymore? Seriously, drive thru porn?

  18. ReaperRob says:

    I live in a busy tourist area and we have an odd problem. The restaurants are packed inside and outside, but they have just one employee doing inside orders and drive through orders. They just run back and forth between the front counter and the window. I know these places aren’t hurting for money, so why can’t they schedule extra people. This isn’t even isolated, almost every place within 20 miles of me does this.

    • aaronx says:

      That would change quickly if the restaurants stopped being so packed, and the owners found out that people stopped going due to slow lines caused by their understaffing. But if the owner can pay one person, and the patrons line up around the block to wait…. well?!

  19. lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

    There’s a tobacco store with a drive through window in town. Every time I drive by, people are lined up in their cars. And that’s near the Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s drive throughs. Healthy living here. **sighs**

  20. giax says:

    My favorite so far has been a drive-thru liquor store, in Ohio. Of course I had to test that. :)

    Here some more business ideas for drive-thru: strip club, bowling alley, funeral service, church services (like mass or confessions), gym, speed dating event, sperm bank, bathroom, and furniture store. Just for starters…

    • do-it-myself says:

      The drive thru Funeral Service (due to rival gang members taking out entire family members otherwise) and Furniture Stores (Brazil) DO exist!

  21. somedaysomehow says:

    “After all, is the drive-thru any faster than going in to the store?”

    Sometimes speed is not the main consideration. Remember, there are MILLIONS of disabled/handicapped folks in the world. Until you’ve experienced it, you can’t understand, but getting in and out of the car can be painful and a real PRODUCTION for someone like me. I will wait in line in a drive-thru at my local pharmacy for however long it takes just to avoid having to go through all that. I will postpone going to or sometimes even decide not to go to a business at all if they don’t have a drive through and there is a lot of walking required to get where I need to be. Drive-thrus seem like conveniences for able-bodied folks, but for some of us they are lifesavers. I feel bad for disabled people living in this town in NJ. Fast food drive-thrus I couldn’t care less about, but for other kinds of businesses you HAVE to patronize, like pharmacies? Yeah. That’s awful.

  22. HogwartsProfessor says:

    The dumbest thing I’ve seen is a Sonic (drive-up fast food place with carhops) that has a drive-thru. WHAT THE HELL….

    I do like drive-thrus, especially since I now have a car with driver’s side windows that actually roll down (!!!). There are some places I will not use it. Taco Bell is one. Whenever I use theirs, they mess up my order every single time. It’s easier just to go in.

    • do-it-myself says:

      Well, at Sonic, the “Tables” are the parking spaces/your car. You can choose to wait longer to have food brought out to you and tip if you’d like…but the Sonic drive thru still serves a purpose.

      What’s more fascinating is the Sonic on Ft. Lauderdale Beach that’s on the 3rd story and get this….has no cars!

  23. JF says:

    I never appreciated the drive through until I had small children. Pharmacy, coffee/tea…… if only they had one for bread and milk……. (they exist, but are uncommon). Having to get kids in and out of the car for a gallon of milk is the biggest PITA ever……

  24. ScandalMgr says:

    Can you imagine a life-time string of drive-thru’s?
    1. First drive thru: Baby diaper changing drive-thru
    2. Food, furniture, tobacco, drugs, clothing, etc drive-thru’s
    3. Final drive thru: Funeral home. “Look kids, there’s grandpa, say goodbye, he died from car exhaust”

  25. Mephron says:

    I’m from that area originally, and unsurprised. Bergen County, in North Jersey, still has blue laws – disallowing sales of other than food and periodicals on Sundays – because of a single town in the county, Paramus. Paramus has a huge, HUGE shopping corridor encompassing Routes 4 and 17 and their crossing. The people of Paramus rise up en masse whenever the idea of ending blue laws in Bergen County comes up, because – and I think, pretty reasonably – would like one day when the town does not have most of its major roadways full of relatively crazy drivers doing the shopping.

    Now, the thing that gets me? One hilarious thing? There is a total of ONE drive-through location in the ENTIRE TOWN… and it’s a BANK. So I don’t quite understand why Cresskill, instead of Englewood, or Bergenfield, or Fair Lawn, or Fort Lee, or Hackensack. Unless this is a toe-in-the-water by some group, and they’re going to try to broaden it later.

  26. Bob A Dobalina says:

    I like to get into a drive thru when it is really busy. I order my food, pull away before I reach the window, park and watch the chaos ensue when every order behind mine is screwed up