McDonald's vs. Chick-fil-A. - Jon Acuff
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McDonald’s vs. Chick-fil-A.

What’s your fast food guilty pleasure?

Don’t say the Outback or the Olive Garden. Those aren’t fast food technically. Those are sit down restaurants. Those aren’t guilty pleasure. I’m talking about the place you go when you’re alone on a business trip. The place you only go through the drive thru. The place that serves food you eat in the car on a road trip.

For me, that’s Taco Bell. I just can’t quit the Bell.

I make terrible food choices there, ordering multiple items even though I know they’re all constructed from the same seven ingredients served from a squirt gun strong enough to deliver beans.

McDonald’s doesn’t feel that way. I’ll sit in a McDonald’s and not worry if anyone sees me. I don’t eat McRibs, because I’m not crazy, but I never feel shame about an egg McMuffin. Recently though,dr I saw something in their parking lot that surprised me.

I saw this sign in a location on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

Why was this interesting to me?

Because it’s a sign showing you where to park if you use the drive-thru.

Can we please agree that 50% of the words in “drive-thru” are “drive.”

The whole point of a drive-thru is that you don’t have to park. You don’t have to stop. You get to stay in your car, moving about your day. Sure, you could always park and go in, but you’re an on the go person. You’re making moves and getting stuff done. You’re too busy to go inside.

So then why does this sign even exist?

It started the way a lot of things start, McDonald’s identified a problem.

The drive-thru wasn’t working properly. Instead of receiving food at the second window, customers were told to pull over and park. Sometimes, there weren’t any close parking spots and they had to circle the building waiting for a Big Mac, like a hamburger shark. This is a breakdown in the system, but things don’t always go perfectly, especially at a fast food restaurant.

At this point, McDonald’s had two choices:

1. Fix the drive-thru so that people got their food faster.
2. Print up a parking sign.

One approach takes effort and practice and deliberate thought.

The other requires a printer who can do waterproof signs and access to a pole.

You will face problems in your job.

You will face problems in your business.

You will face problems in your life.

When you do, you will be offered two choices:

1. Fix it.
2. Patch the symptom.

The first is not always simple. I worked with Chick-fil-A and they faced this same obstacle. To deal with it, they built a life-sized drive thru and studied every inch of the experience. During busy times, you’ll see trained staff members taking orders outside the restaurant so that the car line doesn’t get that long. Car by car, the smiling employee walks down the lot to check on orders.

In Georgia, they had a small podium in the drive thru line that was staffed with an incredibly helpful team member. They kept the busy restaurant hopping and ensured fast service.

Have you ever seen a McDonald’s staff member outside with a clipboard making sure the ordering process is working smoothly?

The second approach is easier. Let’s not even pretend.

It’s easier to put a band aid on a big wound than it is to go to rehab. It’s easier to sweep a relationship under the rug than it is to repair it. It’s easier to move on than it is to stay and fight. It’s easier to buy a bigger pair of jeans than it is to eat kale, which tastes like wet sadness.

But when you do that, you miss the magic that happens when you’re brave.

You miss the magic of a long term fix to a real problem.

You miss the magic of what happens when you actually care.

You end up with a sign but the same amount of frustrated customers.

Problems we patch don’t get better, they just get bigger. That’s the real damage. When you ignore real problems, it sends a message through your entire team that shortcuts are OK. The easy way out is the best way. Difficult solutions are not to be explored. The customer doesn’t matter.

Don’t ignore the problem.

Fix the problem. Save the day. Screw the sign.

The drive-thru was meant for driving, not parking.

P.S. Every Thursday, I write ideas like this for entrepreneur’s. If that’s you, don’t miss the next one. Sign up for the Entrepreneur’s List.

46 Comments
  • Elaine Carr
    Posted at 09:04h, 11 May Reply

    Somehow I always thought the drive-through parking spot was for those people who needed to fix their coffee, arrange their food, etc., before they drove on so they didn’t hold up the rest of the line. For that purpose, I thought it was a good fix. I rarely go to McDonald’s, so I never realized that they would ask some people to park if their food was taking longer. That is really strange. It totally negates the idea of a drive-through. If it happened to me, it would probably be the last time I visited.

    • GerhardM
      Posted at 09:18h, 11 May Reply

      I agree with Elaine, I use that spot for arranging my food safely before I drive off. That way I’m not blocking the next person in line getting their food.

      But yes, Chick Fil A does drive thru best.

      • GerhardM
        Posted at 09:18h, 11 May Reply

        I mean, theoretically…..if I ever were to get McDonald’s drive-thru…….. :/

  • Erica
    Posted at 09:23h, 11 May Reply

    Hi Mr. Acuff! I totally get where you’re coming from and I’m not trying to discount what you’re saying, but just wanted to clear up the parking a bit. I worked at MickyDs for seven years and we would use those spots to pull someone up if their fries were still cooking and the person behind them only had a drink, or if the milk in the Cafe machine needed to be changed and the person’s food behind them was ready — things like that.

    In the drive-thru everything is timed and an order shouldn’t take longer than something like 3 minutes (I haven’t worked there in a while, that might be totally wrong now :), so we’d would pull someone up and out of line if they were waiting on something. Yes, inconvenient for the customer, but no one really complained if they knew they were getting hot, fresh fries 🙂

    • Tom
      Posted at 11:25h, 11 May Reply

      While that sounds like a reasonable explanation, I’ll counter with the fact that there have been several times in the past where I’ve had to pull forward at McDonald’s to wait on my order, and exactly ZERO times I’ve had to do the same thing at Chik-fil-A. I’ve been a drive-thru customer of various fast food restaurants for over 30 years now. I don’t know how old you are, but there was a time when you were never asked to pull forward to wait on your order, regardless of the restaurant. For whatever reason, Chik-fil-A has figured out how to efficiently run a drive-thru where everyone else seems to have forgotten how to do that. This is why Chik-fil-A is now the gold standard in fast food service and everyone else is simply trying to keep up for second place.

      • J
        Posted at 13:17h, 12 May Reply

        I worked at Chick-fil-a and we asked people to park all the time. If someone had a special order, the kitchen was backed up, or if there was a goal to get so many people through the drive thru in a certain amount of time. At the store we also had workers outside during peak hours. The store I worked at was one of the top producers too.

  • Zee
    Posted at 09:26h, 11 May Reply

    Actually, in Ukraine (where I live), there is a special person (sometimes more than one) who walks around in case the lines are long and they take the orders ahead of time, so that by the time you’re at the cashier’s, all you need to do is to pay the amount you need and get your food.

    I have been to McD’s in the States (twice or three times, I think) and I’ve been to the Ukrainian McD’s almost every month (or every week, depending on the financial situation) since it first opened here in ’95 or ’96. I can say that our McD’s is much better than the one in the States. (One of the possible reasons is that it was the first large American franchise that opened here and by now it has reached almost a fast-food RESTAURANT category. If you look at the food courts in the malls here, no matter what, McD’s will have several lines next to it and the rest of the restaurants will be half-empty – and not because McD is slow but because people love it.)

    Anyway… I am off the soapbox. Come on over to Ukraine and check out our McD’s. It’s awesome 😀

  • Eric
    Posted at 09:27h, 11 May Reply

    I have never been an employee at McDonald’s, so I can’t say it’s exactly the same, but I have been an employee at Wendy’s before. One of the metrics used at Wendy’s is ‘drive-thru time’. Above the window (inside) is a small computerized timer, which keeps track of the customer’s time, from the moment they pull up to the menu board to the time they leave the window. The timer then averages those times and proudly displays them for the crew to see. The faster you keep cars moving, the more cars you can serve in a given hour.

    Because ‘faster times = good, slower times = bad’, there was a very obvious incentive inside the store to keep customers moving forward as much as possible. Asking customers to pull forward by a couple of carlengths, while someone finished assembling their burger… asking a customer with a large, complicated order to pull forward even if she was the only person in the drive-thru…

    Chick-Fil-A is focused on customer experience, not on customer ‘conveyor belts’, and people feel it. People know it. I can get a chicken sandwich anywhere in town, but every Chick-Fil-A within 25 miles of me will be packed at lunchtime.

    • CFA Employee
      Posted at 18:36h, 11 May Reply

      Eh, I feel like it’s a customer conveyer belt a lot, actually. We average about 150-180 cars per hour in my drive-thru at any given time of the day. If too many are in the yellow, we get yelled at. CFA is just better at hiding the ‘more bodies more money’ thing than a lot of other corporations. The only time we pull forward is if things aren’t finished cooking and we have a mile-long line behind them (so about 2-3 cars per hour). Plus we don’t have the iPads or parking lot people except a traffic director (the GM, who a lot of people complain about because he’s super rude when directing traffic).

  • Evan Crawford
    Posted at 09:27h, 11 May Reply

    “Problems Delayed are Problems Magnified” – quite simple. this note sits on my desk and in my car

  • Matt
    Posted at 09:36h, 11 May Reply

    As a customer, I hate going to Chick-fil-A when there are employees outside. In fact, if the weather is bad, I will avoid it in order to not contribute to the problem. I can’t imagine that any of the employees are actually happy about being outside in the rain or heat or cold. I love their chicken, but I could do without the employees being outside, or the contrived “My Pleasure.”

  • AJ
    Posted at 09:47h, 11 May Reply

    Ummm so pause. Let’s take a minute to talk about Chick-fil-A. The person-to-person drive thru where team members are out on iPads taking orders is great for customers, but it’s also KILLING the employees. I’ve seen CFAs literally forcing team members to go outside to take orders without any sort of protection from weather in near-freezing temperatures for hours on end. Maybe in makes the drive-thru go faster, but you’re putting employees’ health at risk (and let’s be honest, they all are still forced to come to work even if they’re sick or they get written up) and destroying any sort of team morale while only boosting the paycheck of the Owner/Operator – 31 cents per second the drive thru is sped up, to be exact.

  • Wendy
    Posted at 09:52h, 11 May Reply

    Love this article. My husband demands something free if you make him pull into that spot,,,free cookie, free ice cream…something. As you said it does not fix anything and makes the customer angry. Not fixing the problem at all.

  • Mike Estes
    Posted at 09:52h, 11 May Reply

    Hey Jon,

    Great article! I’ve written several blog posts on CFA’s awesome training and attention to detail. They are always looking to WOW the customer! Just a couple of weeks ago I was at the CFA on Mallory Lane here in Franklin (I’m sure you’re familiar with it Jon) and the Manager had all of the employees together for a little huddle. Being nosy….uhm I mean interested, I listened (eavesdropped) on their conversation.

    Essentially, he was thanking the employees for their hard work. Then he went on to say that in addition to the person by the drive thru window that directs traffic, they are adding a 2nd person to the parking lot that will help cars leaving and those wishing to take their parking spots. Impressive. Always doing what’s in the customers best interest…and I’d say it’s working pretty well!

  • Rich Earnest
    Posted at 09:54h, 11 May Reply

    So, Jon. I concur. Printing the sign is a bandaid. Studying the process and finding a solution is harder but fixes the problem, but I will still “park” in the drive thru if it means I get McDonalds fresh French Fries.

  • Nolan Frederick
    Posted at 09:57h, 11 May Reply

    Is that the Chick Fil A in Duluth next to the Infinite Energy Arena? I ate at that one during the Catalyst Conference back in October.

  • Rebecca Tucker
    Posted at 10:22h, 11 May Reply

    The kale salad at chick-fil-a tastes pretty yummy 🙂

  • John Miller
    Posted at 10:25h, 11 May Reply

    This is so good, applicable at work and home. Putting up a sign is so easy though. That’s where we default–easiness and comfort. I know I do. I never eat kale 🙂

  • Daniel Decker
    Posted at 10:28h, 11 May Reply

    Amen. So true. (P.S, And Chick-fil-a gets my order correct 95% of the time compared to McDonald’s 60%).

  • Scott
    Posted at 11:12h, 11 May Reply

    Maybe if we just avoided fast food we could reduce the number of deaths that are caused by preventable diseases.

  • Bethany Donham
    Posted at 11:32h, 11 May Reply

    Oh my goodness! I’m retweeting your kale click to tweet simply because it’s hilarious that you used that for your click bait! I love it!
    Great article too though!

  • Diane
    Posted at 11:37h, 11 May Reply

    In your postscript you used an apostrophe incorrectly. The plural of entrepreneur is entrepreneurs.

    Great thoughts, but the poor editing bothers me.

    • Dana
      Posted at 14:41h, 11 May Reply

      Wow! One mistake in an entire blog post, and you accuse the writer of “poor editing”! Do you not realize that humans occasionally make mistakes? Poor editing is when multiple errors are found throughout a post, not just a single error.

  • Jessica Petty
    Posted at 12:16h, 11 May Reply

    In N Out has guys out there with clipboards and signs for when lines are long. Makes sense. And Jon, they’re way better than Taco Bell.

  • Jean
    Posted at 13:03h, 11 May Reply

    Jon – I was one of the McDonald’s employees who took orders out in the drive thru – with a clipboard – and this was just a few short years ago. It does work. It makes the line go faster. And the customers love the service with a smile. It was right before we added the double drive through (which only made things worse). We could all send an email or call Corporate and tell them what we like – what actually works. Yes, McDonald’s is going for the easy way out but they also know they are losing business to places like Taco Bell (my favorite too) and soon Panera (hello, delivery)! PS – I have never had Chik-fil-A but I’ve heard great things about it.

  • Dana
    Posted at 14:36h, 11 May Reply

    Only once have I ever been asked to pull forward at a Chick-fil-A, and the manager himself brought out the food with a sincere apology and coupons for free food and drinks! Never have I had that happen at another fast food restaurant.

  • Nathan
    Posted at 14:50h, 11 May Reply

    I used to work outside taking payments at Taco Bell around 1990 with a coin belt and a fanny pack of cash. You had to be able to compute the change in your head and passed the $20 bills back into the window so you didn’t have too much cash on hand. But, I’ve never seen this done at another Taco Bell.

  • Sarah
    Posted at 15:10h, 11 May Reply

    Hey Jon,

    Im not usually a naysayer and I also usually love everything you write! I understand the idea: Don’t skimp when you can excel.

    However, I am an insider in the McDonald business, and this isn’t the whole story. There are quite a few facts about McDonald’s that many folks don’t know. For one, most McDonald’s in the US are entirely locally owned. The idea that Chick-Fil-A is “Christian Owned” is great, but MANY MANY McDonald’s are as well. Chick-Fil-A maintains ownership of every single location and the operator runs the business on the local side. While that allows for LOTS of synchronization across the whole system, we find in McDonald’s that owning our own businesses allows us to innovate!

    In this particular case, McDonald’s did the same level of research Chick-Fil-A did. McD Drive throughs have been studied from the very very beginning. The idea of the “pull up dive thru spot” actually came after McD started offering quality coffee products and specialty drinks. The idea that a latte can be made at the same speed as a large fry and a coke is kind of crazy. So there were lots of studies that proved that customers actually don’t mind pulling forward to get a specialty product. So the options were to limit the menu (which CFA has chosen to do, and it has worked well for them!) or to provide opportunities for all customers to get fresh food even if they order vastly different products.

    I hope this provides some clarity. I do think you make a great point! However, in this case, I do not believe your example is correct.

  • Leila
    Posted at 15:26h, 11 May Reply

    The thing I run into in Louisiana (in addition to the pull up to wait for your order) is being asked to BACK UP in the drive thru.

    They ask me to back up to restart their clock, so it looks like it didn’t take as long to get my order to me. And I’ve started saying no, explaining that backing-up is dangerous. I get very nasty looks. SO far, I have avoided saying learn to do your job properly. (I’m getting snarky in my middle-aged years.)

  • Tania
    Posted at 16:22h, 11 May Reply

    McDonald’s is not my go to fast food restaurant by any means, but I feel like you are making a blanket assumption about all McDonald’s locations. Yes all the McDonald’s locations in my immediate area have the ridiculous drive thru sign. However, I have been to at least two in the area that have had a staff member with a portable device to take orders when it’s busy; like they do at In-N-Out. The blanket assumption bothers me way more than your crack at McDonald’s. As a corporation they leave a lot to be desired, and often leave their franchisees with little options.

  • CS Areson
    Posted at 16:36h, 11 May Reply

    McDonalds has gotta love you. lol
    Whatever the reason McD gives it does feel like they are pushing you aside. Chick though does cost more but you get what you pay for.

  • Fernando
    Posted at 17:25h, 11 May Reply

    Not only in the drive thru but inside as well, CFA has customer service down to a science. We took our group of 30 youth from our church to a well known burger establishment in Texas and it took so long to get get orders, and get them right, while holding the line for other people. Same city, went to the CFA and they set up two lines just for us so they could serve other patrons. The two lines for us had one person getting drinks while the other person got names and orders. By the time we were halfway through the process of ordering, we were already starting to get food for the people who ordered first in our group. It probably took no more than 10 minutes after we were finished ordering for all of us to have the correct order. I was VERY impressed with CFA.

  • Bill Camara
    Posted at 18:06h, 11 May Reply

    Those signs at McD aren’t for paring and eating. They’re where you can go and park when you’re order will take long to finish preparing and you’re holding up the line behind you.

  • Lauren Roland
    Posted at 18:28h, 11 May Reply

    Hi! I’m currently employed at Chickfila, and I want to tell you that we DO pull people up. Probably no more than 3-5 times a shift, but it does happen. Usually when people request something and the kitchen is taking forever, so it’s easier to just pull one car up and then continue with the others. Otherwise you risk interrupting the flow. Sometimes we’ve had to pull 3 people up at once (we’d just switched to lunch and grilled items weren’t ready, so of course the first the 3 lunch orders were grilled).

  • Allan Jackson
    Posted at 20:25h, 11 May Reply

    Wish I had written “wet sadness.” Excellent, as was the entire article, well except for the advertisement tag at the end: it’s “entrepreneurs” not “entrepreneur’s.”

  • Amber
    Posted at 20:47h, 11 May Reply

    Actually the McDonald’s near me is super busy at lunch time and they have 2 people out with digital clipboards taking orders. It’s speedy and impressive. Though I do love Chick-fil-A.

  • Ty Roberts
    Posted at 21:08h, 11 May Reply

    McDonald’s, in their rush to get you through the drive-thru ASAP, *regularly* gets your order wrong. And this is by no means limited to my local Mickey-Dees. I’m ashamed that I’m ebmven aware of this problem, but I do eat a lot of fast food and not once has Chic-fil-a EVER gotten my order wrong.

    Love your insight here. Need to think about what band-aids I’ve applied to my own life.

  • Sarah Wright
    Posted at 21:11h, 11 May Reply

    Chick -fil-A no contest except they need to serve McDonalds Fries….. That combo would really make them a shoe in….Just my thoughts….

  • Scott
    Posted at 22:21h, 11 May Reply

    I thought that was for the office girl that got sent to pick up 19 Big Macs, 2 without cheese, 1 with no sauce, 1 with extra pickles, 2 with no onions and a slew of diet Cokes.

  • Jonathan
    Posted at 08:49h, 12 May Reply

    good points but Chik-fil-A has the same (two spots actually at my location) and I’ve been forced to park in them multiple times and more than once forgotten.

  • Andy W Chance
    Posted at 12:04h, 12 May Reply

    I love Chick-fil-A and definitely prefer their approach to customer service.

    But they have one big, huge, insane problem:

    they don’t serve hamburgers.

  • Jim
    Posted at 14:17h, 12 May Reply

    I saw McDonald’s on West End in Nashville taking orders with tablets a few years back.

  • Jessica
    Posted at 14:46h, 12 May Reply

    Just curious did you ask McDonalds corporate or franchisees for comment?

  • Luke
    Posted at 21:09h, 13 May Reply

    The life lesson here is unfortunately being lost in the slightly bad comparison of McDonald’s and Chic-fil-a, lol

  • Terri
    Posted at 06:02h, 14 May Reply

    Chick fila didn’t just improve their drive-thru, they made kale taste pretty good, too!

  • Jeff Anderson
    Posted at 07:01h, 13 July Reply

    Except for the fact that the brand new Chil-fil-A in Murfreesboro TN has a dual lane drive-through with employees standing outside taking orders AND they still have 2 designated parking spaces for drive through customers. This is essential for situations like when people make special requests, such as fries with no salt. Rather than having that car sit at the window and hold everyone else up, they direct them to the special parking space and have them wait for their food to be brought to them. McDonalds solved this problem years ago and Chik-fil-A has just now caught on to the solution.

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