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Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Chick-fil-A drive-throughs now slowest among big chains, study finds

Chick-fil-A’s popularity is taking a toll on customers’ time.

The Atlanta-based chicken sandwich chain’s drive-through lines are the friendliest, most accurate and busiest among the nation’s major fast-food chains, according to a new study.

But Chick-fil-A also now has by far the slowest wait times.

The average wait time — just the period between giving an order and receiving the food — grew by more than a minute this summer from the year before, according to industry publication QSR, which partners with a third party to test drive-through service annually.

Chick-fil-A’s average time hit five minutes and 23 seconds, nearly 40 seconds longer than McDonald’s, which had the next-slowest time of 10 chains audited. The testing was conducted by anonymous shoppers.

Yet to be seen is whether the slowing times will cut into Chick-fil-A’s torrid growth. It’s now ranked as the third-largest restaurant chain in the nation by revenue, according to one industry publication. The chain’s average per-restaurant sales also tops $4 million, far greater than any of its biggest rivals.

Drive-through business is key to that growth, making up about 70% of sales.

But U.S. consumers’ perceptions of time are fluid.

While customers sitting in their vehicles are largely focused on convenience, expectations vary by brand, said Charles Winship, manager for consumer insights at industry consulting firm Technomic.

“Chick-fil-A’s model is focused a little more on quality and service rather than trying to be the quickest and most affordable,” he said.

Technomic’s data show recent Chick-fil-A visitors who went through drive-through were “highly satisfied” with the speed, more so than at most other chains. That hasn’t changed much over the last year, Winship added.

But being too popular can cause ripple effects.

Some regulars might instead swing over to rivals, such as Popeyes, which recently faced its own crowds when it introduced a new chicken sandwich, said QSR editor Sam Oches.

“I have certainly avoided a Chick-fil-A drive-through because it was too crazy,” said Oches, who lives in North Carolina. He volunteered that he also sat 20 minutes in line to get a meal from the chain.

Fast food in general has gotten slower in the past 15 years, particularly as chains grapple with more menu items and food that takes longer to make, all while trying to improve order accuracy.

Average wait times across the 10 largest chains grew by nearly 20 seconds from a year ago, according to QSR. Sandy Springs-based Arby’s, which averaged wait times of four minutes and 23 seconds, was among those logging increases.

It wasn’t immediately clear why Chick-fil-A saw delays grow so much faster than its peers in a single year, particularly for a company that has focused intently on improving its convenience.

A Chick-fil-A spokesperson declined to provide comment Tuesday, instead referring to previous statements by the company.

Chick-fil-A is adding windows and doors at some restaurants so staff can bring food to waiting vehicles more quickly, Khalilah Cooper, the chain’s director of service and hospitality, said earlier this year. The chain also is attaching removable shelves alongside the drive-through at some restaurants so outside workers can stage food before hand delivering it.

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