It’s February. The month decided to announce its arrival last Saturday with cold, heavy rain. (It has since continued its fickle existence by giving us another large snowfall, but that’s a different story). I discovered the weather at 10:30 am when I was sent out to flip the menu board in the drive-thru at work. My thin uniform did nothing to stop the thick drops from chilling my to the bone. I should have taken the hint. Since the weather was warm enough to drive safely but gross enough to encourage limited exposure, we had the busiest day in the drive-thru that we’ve had for a long time. I was assigned to be on headset, which I’ve learned how to handle. Still, the work was exhausting. Every time I work drive-thru on an exceptionally busy day, I find myself frustrated with the customers. Some are kind, but many are rude, annoying, and disrespectful of the workers and the cars behind them. I have to remind myself that most of our customers don’t even realize what they’re doing. If you’ve never worked in a drive-thru, it’s a little difficult to know what you’re communicating. This is why I have decided to write A Guide to Using a Drive-Thru. I hope it’s helpful and accurate.
When one pulls into a parking lot with the intent of going through the drive-thru, the first thing one must ask is, “Do I really need to go through the drive-thru? Or would it be faster to park and go inside?” A surprising fact: It’s often a lot faster to park and come into the store than to go through our drive-thru. This might seem a little illogical. The whole point of a drive-thru, after all, is to save time by not having to come into the store. If you could just pull up and get your food and drive away, all of that nasty parking, walking into the store, and waiting in line would be eliminated. Unfortunately, you still have to order and we still have to prepare your food. Inside our restaurant, there are screens for the person/persons bagging drive-thru and front-counter. The orders are color coded for how long they’ve been waiting. Green is up to 2 minutes, Yellow is 2-5 minutes, Red is anything after. The drive-thru screen is much more likely to get into the red than the front-counter. There are several reasons for this, but the biggest one is that if the car in front of you has to wait for some reason, you have to wait for them, and the car behind you, and the car behind that, and the car ordering will have to wait once it’s done. There is only one window where food gets handed out. Nothing else works architecturally. Some stores have two windows, one for the food to be paid for, the other to get food handed out, but this is a stall tactic so the customer feels like things are going more quickly than they actually are. My point is that if one pulls into a parking lot and sees three cars in the drive-thru, it might be faster to park and come inside. One can’t know if one of those cars will hold up the line for some reason. If you can only see one or two cars, by all means, stay in your car.
If there aren’t many cars, one should ask this question: “Would it be faster for the cars behind me if I go inside?” In answering this question, the first thing to take into account is what time of day it is. If one is coming into a drive-thru between 11 am and 2 pm or 5 pm and 7 pm, this is a particularly important question. Those times are meal rushes. It is very likely that a car will pull behind you while your ordering, and if you’re in the middle of a rush, it’s also likely that two or three cars will be behind you. The second thing to account for is how much food one will be ordering. One meal? Perfect. Two Meals? Great. Three? Sure. Four? We can do that. Five? Okay. Six? Really? Seven? Are you serious? Eight? You’re just being mean. Nine? There are twenty cars behind you now and they will all blame me for how long this is taking. Are there two separate orders? I can totally do that. Are there three? Um, sure? Four? Go inside. Right now. Remember when I talked about the line issue of the drive-thru? If you order more than four meals or two orders, you will be holding up the line, I guarantee you. That office worker who has fifteen minutes to pick up food will spend it waiting for you to fill your order. How is that kind or considerate? Please, if you have a large order, come inside and we can stack all of those bags in a nice large shopping bag. Heck, we will probably take that food out to your car for you. But don’t inconvenience the car behind you.
Next thing to take into account with regards to the car behind you is if one has any idea of the restaurant’s menu. If one has never been to this restaurant before, the drive-thru at lunch rush might not be the best time to spend five minutes looking over the menu. The cars behind you will think it is my fault. Trust me on that. Park. Come inside. Stand against the wall and look at our choices. No one will get frustrated at you for you taking your time. Now, if one has a cursory knowledge of the menu but doesn’t know what one wants, there is nothing wrong with taking a minute to look over the menu. But a minute is kind of a long time. Respect the car behind you!
If one is still bent on using the drive-thru, the next thing one has to take into consideration is communicating with the voice next to the menu board. First, that is not just a disembodied voice or a computer program. That is a person. Sometimes that voice sounds like a grumble, but it still comes from a human being. Please speak to us as though we are one. We will probably give you a greeting of some sort (“Good morning”, “Welcome to”, “Thank you for choosing”). Please give us one in return (“Hi” “Hello”). If the person taking your order gives a name, use it. It makes my day when someone responds to my greeting with, “Hello, Lydia.” Remember, you are not orally punching information into a database. Rather, we are having a conversation. So when one goes to order one’s food, one should be careful of how one asks. “I need…” is not appropriate. Let’s be real here. No one needs fast-food. “I want…” is kind of demanding. Toddlers use this all the time. We applaud them because they’re communicating, but it wears on the ear quickly. Please don’t be a toddler. Ask politely. “I would like…”, “Could I please have…”, “May I please have…” are all wonderful and appropriate.
A note on voice clarity. Sometimes it’s hard to understand us with the crackly speaker. I’m sorry. I must say that it’s hard for us to hear customers also. If you’re muffler is busted, please turn off your car so we can hear you. Please be patient with us if we are having trouble understanding you. I still have difficulty with thick rural drawl and inner-city speak (Where we live I get both). Also, we may ask you to repeat something. Please don’t get frustrated. Let me tell you what it means to be on headset.
The person on headset is not just listening to you and punching buttons on a screen. They’re the ones making your drinks and all the desserts. If you’re coming through at 2pm, there’s a good chance there are three milkshakes on my screen. In order to make them, I have to multi-task. Sometimes I can do this easily. If I’ve had a long day, my retention ability beings to slip. But someone inside our store ordered that milkshake and would like it pretty quickly. Some times someone else can make it, but often it’s up to me. The person on headset is also probably not in a special room (our store has one, but we can’t sustain enough employees for separate people to do drinks and headset). We’re listening to you, but we can also hear the car at the window, the cashier at the window, the conversation between the baggers and the kitchen, and the front-counter cashiers. Some days it gets kind of loud where I am. I want to hear my customers, but quiet voices don’t carry when I’m hearing fifteen conversations at once. So if I have to ask you to repeat yourself, I’m probably having trouble multi-tasking or hearing you over the noise around me. Please be patient and repeat yourself as articulately as you can.
A note on special orders. Special orders take time. If you order a salad with no cheese, we have to make that specially for you. Where I work, all the salad bases are made fresh every morning, and they sit waiting for someone to order what kind of chicken they want on it. They’re made with cheese on them. If you order one without cheese, you will be waiting for it. If you order a plain sandwich, it will take a while. We stock up on regular sandwiches, but plain ones will have to be made specially. If a lot of people order specials all at once, the kitchen might be stopped up. Please keep in mind the line behind you and that you will probably be waiting for longer.
A note on drinks. The moment a customer orders a drink, I start making it. So when the drink size is changed at the end of the order, I have to dump out that cup and throw it away. Please indicate a special size upfront. Also, please don’t say, “I’ll just have a coke.” Fun fact: Coke is the one of the fizziest sodas in existence. I have to wait for the fizz to die down in order to make sure the cup is full and also doesn’t overflow through the straw-hole. It takes twice as long to make as a diet coke. Actually, in general avoid the word “just”. Unless you are ordering one food item, “just” usually implies a standard of normality that probably isn’t there.
When one is finished ordering, the person on headset will probably read your order back to you. We do this to catch mistakes. If we’ve made one, graciously correct us. Please do not yell or snap. We would rather be corrected at the speaker than at the window so the bags are made up correctly. We may also ask you for condiments. I have little buttons for ketchup and salt and mayo. When I push them, the bagger can see them and make sure those are in your bag when you pull up at the window. So please, if we ask, tell us everything you want then. The person at the window doesn’t want to spend extra time pulling together all your condiments. You’d probably like your food sooner rather than later anyway. Also, please wait until the person at the speaker has finished talking. Then thank us for our work. Then you can pull on. I can’t tell you how disrespected I feel when a customer pulls away while I’m still talking. I’m not an automated system. I am a human being.
While one is waiting to arrive at the window would be the best time for one to pull out one’s money. If there is no wait, pulling it out at the window is fine, but remember the cars waiting for you. When you get to the window, feel free to chat with the cashier. They’ll be fussing with your card or your money, but we’ve learned how to be personable and handle a transaction. Again, the more you treat us like human beings, the better we’ll feel and the better we’ll be able to do our jobs. A caveat: Please don’t change your order at the window if you can help it. Hopefully we’ll already be putting together the order you gave at the speaker, and if we have to undo what we’ve already done, it’s really frustrating.
A note on cell-phones: Please don’t use them in the drive-thru at all. When customers are talking on their phones and to the speaker at the same time, the headset worker can’t tell the difference. It’s like talking on two phones at once. When customers are talking on their phones at the window, they aren’t really listening to their total. They’re assuming the purpose of the window is to dispense food, not complete a transaction. Please, turn off the phone.
If one must wait at the window, please wait patiently. We want to give you your food. Sometimes the kitchen gets behind and we have to wait for normal orders. The cashier can’t do anything about this. If we have to pull you forward because we’ve run out of strips, please pull through and wait patiently. If one’s food and drink are ready at the window, please thank the cashier before driving off. We are serving you, but we’re not slaves. We would like some thanks for our jobs.
I hope I didn’t stamp on anyone’s toes with this blog. It’s tricky to write about food service without coming off as demanding, whether of worker or of customer. It’s easy to assume that either party is being lazy or rude when things don’t work out ideally. Still, in consumerist America, as I have written before, fast food workers are on the lowest end of the job spectrum. Think how many jokes are made that end with line, “Well at least I’m not working at McDonald’s”. But people do work at McDonald’s because other people like eating at McDonald’s. Food service shouldn’t be food slavery. So we, as customers, should be educated on how to best appreciate those who give us our food. Instead of biting their hands, that is.