Who among us has not had that late night hankering for some fast food?  Recently I was picking up some West Coast visitors from the airport and decided to treat them to a local Southern treat before we called it a night.  I was amazed at the number of people who had a similar idea, so at midnight, I settled into 10th place in the drive-thru line at a purportedly tasty chicken QSR to grab a snack for all of us.  I’m the patient type, and I had good company, so I waited the 30 minutes that it took to get the turn to place my order.  I just didn’t realize what was in store for me.

I finally inched up one car short of the squawk box and was greeted with one of the craziest drive-thru menu boards I’ve ever seen.  It’s a huge menu, but I’m not sure why – they only serve fried chicken, fish, and a handful of sides.  The menu board had at least 50 variations of chicken combinations and then repeated similar combinations for fish items.  The most prominently placed items were the 200, 100, and 50 piece options.  Really?  Who orders a catering spread through the drive-thru?  Certainly nobody that I watched that evening.  And who needs to have every possible combination of meat, sizes, sides, and bread spelled out for them?  I’m guessing very few visitors look forward to that War and Peace reading lesson.

As they say in our favorite car dealer radio ads, “wait … there’s more!”  The backlit menu board actually had tape over the original backlit prices, so nobody could see what the prices were for the endless array of meal combinations they offered.  Yes, duct tape.  With black writing on the tape.  Needless to say, everyone in line was reliant on the cashier to tell them how much they were spending.  And the glacier-like pace of the drive-thru line reflected everyone’s confusion and displeasure.

I admit that I have a professional bias.  My business focuses on digital menu boards and digital merchandisers.  Most restaurants are considering digital menu boards for restaurant patrons that come in the door.  They understand the ROI, efficiency, and visual attraction inside the restaurant.  But what about outside?  What about the 70% of the customers that never get out of their car?  What kind of impression do they get?  How inefficient is the process, and how much revenue/margin is that costing the restaurant?  Add all that together, and you can make a pretty good case for professionally outfitting your drive-thru, regardless of the cost of the technology.

My chicken drive-thru experience helped me understand a handful of things for those of us in the restaurant digital signage business.  First, the top digital signage companies are still waiting for the price of outdoor digital signage equipment to fall.  Rather than selling the notion of lost opportunity and revenue on one end, and pressuring our vendors to come up with reasonably priced outdoor digital signage hardware on the other end, we’ve been waiting for the market to come to us.  We all need to stir it up and help the restaurants and vendors quantify their lost revenue and engagement opportunity.

Secondly, the importance of well-organized menu content can’t be ignored.  Menus at the drive-thru have to be more concise and organized – there’s just not enough signage “real estate” to boast of everything you could possibly serve.  Because the outdoor digital signage displays are still somewhat expensive, why not have a well thought out, abbreviated menu that focuses on the key combos and items that people actually order from the comfort of their car?  Perhaps a single screen digital merchandiser installed prior to the static menu could engage customers and influence them to order those more popular and profitable items.

Finally, all of us know that good pictures sell food.  Great food shots on a merchandiser managed by easy-to-use digital menu board software is even more impactful at the drive-thru.  Take advantage of the flexibility it would give you with LTOs, dayparts, and add-on items.  It’s not difficult to get the content right and it might even make the drivers’ wait time seem a little more tolerable, as they get introduced to the menu options that others have enjoyed at your restaurant.  The cost to do that is very reasonable, and those doing it are seeing strong ROI and strong restaurant loyalty.

My evening chicken run was not an experience I’ll be likely to repeat.  Though the chicken was remarkable, the effort and time it took were intolerable to me and my passengers.  When you add the sticker shock of the unknown prices and the poor impression that the menu left, there’s a car-full of one-time customers who will have nothing good to say about the place.  My advice – if you’ve got great fast food, make it easy to order it, let people see it, and leave the patrons with a good impression.  If you do that, folks will come back even if the price is a little higher.  Oh yeah … and lose the duct tape please!