(Bloomberg ) McDonald's Corp. (MCD), losing the speed race to rivals and racking up customer complaints about slow service, is adding a third drive-thru window.
Called Fast Forward Drive-Thru, the reboot will start appearing in new and rebuilt McDonald's stores next year, Lisa McComb, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. Patrons now pay at the first window and pick up food at the second. Soon there will be a second pick-up window.
"It enables customers to pull forward to receive orders at a third window when their order is not yet ready," she said. It "will enable us to better serve more customers quickly."
The drive-thru is even more important to McDonald's than the Big Mac. The fast-food chain generates as much as 70 percent of its sales from hungry drivers, according to John Gordon, principal at San Diego-based Pacific Management Consulting Group and an adviser to restaurant franchisees. Boosting drive-thru speeds could help McDonald's Chief Executive Officer Don Thompson increase U.S. same-store sales, which have gained 1 percent or less for the past four quarters.
Ever since McDonald's created its first drive-thru in 1975 in Sierra Vista, Arizona, fast-food chains have competed fiercely to shave seconds off order times, equipping workers with headsets, video cameras and clocks showing how long cars have been waiting. Some make it a game: At Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, the fried-chicken chain owned by AFC Enterprises Inc. (AFCE), the company pits franchisees against each other in a friendly competition for the fastest drive-thru times.
Disgruntled diners have taken to Twitter to complain about slow drive-thru service at McDonald's.
"I HATE when McDonald's makes me pull out of the drive thru line and wait in a parking spot like a chump," @EmLynnClements posted yesterday.
On Nov. 11, @HumblePie34 posted: "McDonald's needs an express drive thru lane so I don't have to wait an hour for a mcflurry."
In 2011, Bob Jedele, who owns seven McDonald's stores, added a third window to his Greencastle, Indiana, location and noticed an uptick in service speed.
"The slowest function is delivering the food," he said. With the third window, "we've been able to more quickly take care of our guests."
Jedele plans to add a window to a second store next year. About two-thirds of sales come from the drive-thru, he said.
A more complicated menu has bogged down McDonald's service. Customers can choose from nine different sauces, such as spicy buffalo and creamy ranch, to go with Mighty Wings.
The pace of product introduction was "too fast -- this created challenges for our restaurants," Jeff Stratton, McDonald's USA president, said during an investor conference yesterday. The company is focused on clean stores and fast and accurate service to improve customers' perception of McDonald's, he said.
The chain also this year rolled out egg-white breakfast sandwiches, chicken McWraps and pumpkin-spice lattes to lure Americans from competitors.
"The more items you have on the menu, the more challenging it is to get everything served on time and at the right temperature," said Sara Senatore, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein in New York.
Fueling up at McDonald's drive-thrus takes longer than at Taco Bell and Wendy's Co. (WEN), according to an October study by QSR Magazine. It takes about 189 seconds at a McDonald's store, compared with 158 seconds at Taco Bell and 134 seconds at Wendy's. McDonald's drive-thru service is slower than last year, the study shows.
McDonald's U.S. same-store sales growth slowed to 0.7 percent in the third quarter from 1 percent in the previous quarter. Along with tweaking its drive-thrus, McDonald's is introducing a new Dollar Menu, with some items priced at $2 and $5, trying to boost sales. The company also is testing a mobile payment application in certain locations.
McDonald's fell 0.9 percent to $96.69 at 10:41 a.m. in New York. The shares climbed 11 percent this year through yesterday, compared with a 24 percent increase for the Standard & Poor's 500 Restaurants Index. By contrast, Wendy's has gained 86 percent and Burger King Worldwide Inc. (BKW) has risen 24 percent.
About 32 percent of McDonald's revenue last year came from the U.S., where it has more than 14,100 stores.