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Like Olympic sprinters, drive-through restaurants work feverishly to shave seconds from their time.

"HimayItakeyourorderplease?" says the drive-through greeter at Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers.

This greeting takes only one second, a triumphant two seconds faster than is suggested in Wendy's guidelines, and the speed of it was clocked by a high-tech timer installed this January. In just three months, the timer, which measures nearly every aspect of drive-through performance, helped knock eight seconds off the average takeout delivery time at this restaurant. But manager Ryan Tomney wants more. "Every second," he says, "is business lost."

At 25 fast-food restaurant chains ranked in a recent study, cars spent an average of 203.6 seconds from arrival at the menu board to departure from the pickup window. At Wendy's, the nation's third-largest hamburger chain, that time was significantly shorter: 150.3 seconds. This made Wendy's 16.7 seconds faster than McDonald's, 21 seconds faster than Burger King, and second to none.

"Most chains would sell their first born to get that speed," says Jack Sparagowski, whose independent market-research firm, Sparagowski & Associates, conducted the study on behalf of industry trade magazine QSR.

Yet far from gloating, Wendy's is scrambling to improve its drive-through speed, and for good reason. Not long ago, drive-through was a hole punched through the wall to supplement dining-room sales. But today, almost 65 percent of fast-food revenue is coming through that hole. Between 1997 and 2007, sales of meals to be eaten off premises are expected to grow three times faster than on-premise sales, according to Franchise Finance Corp. of America.

Now that most of the best locations have been nabbed _ new restaurant growth among the 100 largest chains slowed last year to its lowest level in recent history _ drive-through may be the final battleground for fast-food market share in the United States. It is "critical because it's over half of our business" and is the part of McDonald's "most susceptible to growing," says McDonald's Corp. chief executive Jack Greenberg. For every six seconds saved at the drive-through, he says, sales increase by 1 percent.

Indeed, Wendy's competition isn't far behind. Using product development, employee retraining and new technology, McDonald's, Burger King, Arby's, Taco Bell and others are all gunning for the drive-through market. The latest menu addition at McDonald's is aimed expressly at the drive-through customer _ salad in a container that fits in car cup holders. Arby's is working on what its president calls a "high viscosity" version of its special sauce that is less likely to spill. Burger King is testing see-through bags that allow customers to quickly check that all items are included.

Even chains that never have put much stock in drive-through operations, such as Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts, have begun building them. The drive-through window "is now driving disproportionately large growth in dollars," says Wendy's chief executive Jack Schuessler.

The chain that most consistently offers the fastest service will attract more customers. Regular drive-through customers know that a six-car line at one chain is likely to move faster than a three-car line at another. By some estimates, increasing drive-through efficiency by 10 percent bolsters sales at the average fast-food restaurant by $54,000 per year. Last year, the average fast-food restaurant did about $560,000 in sales.

To boost speed, some restaurants are remodeling. Burger King, the second-largest chain, plans to fit company-owned restaurants with separate kitchens for drive-through customers, something Wendy's International Inc. of Dublin, Ohio, instituted years ago. Burger King says its drive-through improvement plan will facilitate employees "beating the car to the window with the food." In lobbying its franchisees to add drive-through kitchens, Burger King says it "could further increase average restaurant sales by hundreds of thousands of dollars per restaurant."

Other chains are hoping technology will rev up speed. McDonald's last month began testing technology that allows drivers to bypass the cash window entirely with the same windshield trans-ponders that automatically pay highway tolls. The gadgets are scanned when the driver passes the menu board, with purchases billed to their monthly toll-road accounts. The system, which is being tested for three months in California, is estimated to shave 15 seconds off drive-through time and boost sales by at least 2 percent. McDonald's plans to test the technology in other regions.

The timer is fast becoming one of the most popular speed-enhancing devices. Using underground sensors placed on the drive-through lane, the device measures to the second how long it takes cars to progress from the menu board to the cash window to the pickup window _ then how long it takes to complete an order. Managers can print detailed summaries of drive-through times, including the average wait at each interval and even how many cars pulled out midway through the process after having placed an order.

The attempt to turn drive-through into a science inevitably encounters two wild cards: employees and customers. Management at big chains insist that employees like the timer because it turns their work into a game _ can I make 300 consecutive sandwiches in less than seven seconds each? But working in the new world of sensors and alarms isn't always fun.

After nine months at a Taco Bell franchise in Lawrence, Kan., night manager Tiffany Swan Holloway vows never again to work in fast food. Her small night crew had a hard time keeping up with the chain's 60-second window-service goals and a constant stream of cars that usually numbered in the hundreds, says Holloway, who recently quit the $7.75-an-hour job. And then there was the timer.

"It beeps and it keeps counting," Holloway recalls. "Nobody liked to be on drive-through."

Customers are another problem. Wendy's trains cashiers to hold their arms out the window, offering change to the dollar, thereby pre-empting customers from rooting around for coins and wasting valuable seconds. But "they're looking anyway," laments cashier Pastor Tequimila on a recent day here at the Darien Wendy's. His station today is blowing its budget by 25 seconds per car.

Big orders can gum the works, too. At the very instant that some McDonald's executives _ eager to show off their speedy new toll-transponder technology _ arrive with visitors at a southern California franchise, plans are foiled by the driver of the minivan just ahead, who wants a dozen Happy Meals.

The biggest price of speed, however, is accuracy. The same study that showed Wendy's on top in speed ranked it 11th in accuracy, something Wendy's would like to improve. "Quality is our speed limit," Tomney, the Wendy's manager, likes to say.

A customer who finds something missing or wrong with his order is unlikely to take much comfort in how quickly he zipped through the line. University of Kansas student Clint Toland and his girlfriend recently drove through a Taco Bell to get a late-night meal of nachos with meat but no beans. Back at home, a discovery: beans and no meat. "My girlfriend was in a bad mood because she was starving," Toland says. "I'm never going back again."

As long ago as the 1930s, some enterprising hamburger stands installed crude intercoms and introduced drive-through. But it wasn't until the late 1970s that drive-through became an institution _ when Wendy's founder Dave Thomas made them a staple of his then fast-growing chain. Thomas' thinking wasn't rocket science: drive-through windows bolstered sales without using up dining-room space or extra labor. When it became clear that Wendy's enjoyed higher profit margins and lower labor costs than its competitors, the idea began to spread, according to Fast Food, a recently published history of the industry.

Wendy's remained a leader, pioneering the chainwide use of separate kitchens that allowed made-to-order sandwiches to be churned out quickly. With competitors now copying those advantages, Wendy's recently launched its new efficiency program. The effort involves a combination of new timers, kitchen choreography designed to eliminate unnecessary movement, and wireless headsets that let all workers hear customer orders as they come in.

Wendy's says the first region to implement the program saw sales increases of 3 percent to 4 percent above Wendy's units in the rest of the country. Market-research firm Technomic Information Services confirms that Wendy's takeout sales last year increased by 12 percent, vs. 8.3 percent at McDonald's and 3.1 percent at Burger King.

A visit to the Wendy's here in Darien shows how ambitious the program is. The store, which already had an average drive-through time of less than two minutes _ far beneath the chainwide average and even further below the industry average _ has been designated a model for other managers. Still, there is room for improvement.

"I know we can attain 90," says Mac Shimmon, division vice president for all Wendy's Chicago-area stores, who is visiting the Darien store this day. By that, he means a 90-second average. To Shimmon, time reduction is almost a religion: "When times are down to 130 seconds," he says, "that's when customers believe" that the drive-through is fast. "At 100 seconds _ now you've got an emotional attachment."

Who's the fastest

Top five 1999 average drive-through times from menu board to departure, in minutes and seconds:

Company Time

Wendy's 2:30

McDonald's 2:47

Checkers 2:49

Burger King 2:51

Long John Silver's 2:52

Source: Wall Street Journal