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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2004 — July — Technology

Olympic Records
Taco Bueno’s electronic timers help improve the speed of the drive-thru lane.

By Mary Boltz Chapman

Athens is not the only place that’s abuzz with the Olympics. So are cities in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Though the excitement is contained to Taco Bueno units.

Taco Bueno’s drive-thru timer turns red when it reaches 45 seconds and starts beeping when it hits 60 seconds.

The fast-casual Mexican chain held its own Drive Thru Olympics, awarding prizes to general managers whose restaurants saw the most improvement in drive-thru speed. It measured each transaction with a new system of timers that are connected to headquarters. As a result, Taco Bueno saw record sales volumes, and drive-thru rates only continue to improve.

“One of our big business imperatives is to focus on speed of service,” says Peter Belcher, director of operations systems and support for the chain. “You get greater sales with a greater number of cars.”

The company was in the process of rolling out the timers chainwide, hoping to finish by this year’s first quarter. Executives decided to accelerate the installations in time for the contest and completed them by year-end 2003.

This is actually the second time Taco Bueno held the Drive Thru Olympics. Last year, mystery-shopper results determined the winners. “The difference was, this year we measured every car, every day,” he says.



Taco Bueno
Carrollton, Texas
Parent Company
Jacobson Partners, New York
2003 Systemwide Sales
$121 million
2004 Systemwide Sales
$125 million*
Average Check
Expansion Plans
10 units in 2004, 12 to 15 in 2005
*Chain Leader estimate

How It Works
A loop-detecting device in the drive-thru lane is tied into the cashier’s headset. The system can measure how long it takes the order taker to greet the customer, take the order and serve the food once the car is at the window. Taco Bueno measured the time each car was at the window itself, feeling it was a fair comparison. “If you use overall time, the number of cars in the lane can change the time,” Belcher says

The timer is prominently displayed at the window. If the order is not complete at 45 seconds, the numbers turn red. At 60 seconds, it beeps.

For a 7-week period ending in March, corporate tallied daily results and sent them to general managers so they could track progress and rally their teams. To ensure customers weren’t being rushed or staffers weren’t making mistakes, mystery shoppers also evaluated each unit.

“Managers would hold assistant managers accountable,” Belcher says. “The financial incentives were part of it. But our people really grabbed onto it.”

Taco Bueno recognized the winners at the General Manager Conference, awarding plaques and checks to managers in four regions. The overall winner, Kinh Hua, lead his Plano, Texas, unit’s staff to reduce average drive-thru times by 41 seconds.

Counting the Ways
Chainwide, drive-thru times improved by more than 14 seconds, and 98 percent of the units showed some improvement. Nine percent improved by more than 30 seconds, 30 percent by more than 20 seconds, 48 percent by more than 15 seconds, and 65 percent by more than 10 seconds.

Taco Bueno CEO Stephen Clark (l.) awarded plaques and checks to Drive Thru Olympics winners at the company’s annual General Manager Conference. The winning GMs were Anne Smith, Tulsa market; Alex Mahbub, Fort Worth market; Kinh Hua, Dallas market and the overall winner; and Dushan Karunarante, Oklahoma City market. Also pictured are vice presidents of operation Kevin Lewis and E.J. Nazarpour.

In mid-March, during the second half of the contest, Taco Bueno set an all-time sales record: weekly average unit volumes exceeded $21,600. “Since the end of the contest, we have surpassed that record more than five times,” Belcher says.

Belcher adds that drive-thru times have continued to improve since the contest ended. “We expected it to fall off a bit,” he says. “It did fall off for about three weeks, but it’s currently running about 2 seconds better than during the contest.”

Taco Bueno began accepting credit cards systemwide at the same time the contest began, which Belcher says also helped the drive-thru times. The chain had tested credit cards earlier, but it slowed the drive-thru down. Recently, however, it converted to high-speed Internet access for the back office. This enables units to process a card in three seconds. “With the time we used to spend fumbling for change, it actually is quicker,” he says. “We’re just happy it didn’t hurt the time.”

The Cost of Communication
Customers say they like it. The order takers give it a thumbs up. But does it really help?

This is the conundrum at White Castle, which has been testing two-way cameras at the drive-thru. Meant to aid communication and avoid botched orders, the system enables drive-thru customers to see who they are talking to, and vice versa.

The first such system was installed in April 2003 in a new unit in Fairfield, Ohio. According to Don Long, senior director of information services and information technology, the Columbus, Ohio-based hamburger chain has different versions of the two-way-camera technology in seven of its 380-some units.

Long says the chain looked for an order-confirmation board that had a camera built in, or one that could be modified. Unable to find one, White Castle installed its own cameras and hardware. Later, he learned of suppliers testing two-way systems, including its safe vendor, which offers a similar setup to its bank customers.

Restaurants with the varied systems programmed them so the cameras will not turn on until a car hits the loop sensor at the drive-thru. Order takers notice when the display comes on; the monitor does not become part of the background.

“In our surveys of customers and team members, about 90 percent of them liked it,” he says. “Accuracy of orders, though, didn’t improve.” Long adds that all of the systems are in new units, so it’s difficult to determine if fewer orders would be correct without the system. He says that there is a moratorium on installing two-way cameras in additional units until he can develop a solid ROI to justify the cost.

Looking forward, Long says that as units install new order-confirmation boards, the company can simply add the two-way function, making it more cost-effective.

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