In the bigger scheme of national and global issues, how to keep order in a fast-food restaurant’s double drive-through lane doesn’t seem like a pressing issue.
But if you’re in that double drive-through lane, where people ordering at two different stops must wordlessly figure out how to appropriately merge their vehicles to the single pay and pickup window, there is no more pressing issue.
More fast-food restaurants are getting double drive-through lanes these days, which are designed to make the drive-through experience more efficient. Many McDonald’s have them, as do Freddy’s and Chick-fil-A restaurants.
But many people just aren’t sure how to handle them. Look no further for proof than a Facebook page called People against McDonald’s Double Drive-Thru, which is filled with stories and photos of double drive-through altercations.
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What’s the etiquette?
My friend and colleague Suzanne Perez Tobias found this out in a downtown McDonald’s double drive-through early last week, where she’d stopped to get a $1 coffee.
Suzanne relayed her own experience on Facebook.
“Forgive the lengthy post this morning, but I have a sociological question: When you’re in a drive-thru arrangement where two ordering lanes merge into a single pay-and-pickup lane, how do you decide which car moves into the pay lane first?
“I’ve always assumed you should alternate back and forth between lanes, regardless of who may have technically ordered first. After the car directly in front of you moves through, you allow the car in the other lane to go, then you move forward, and so on. Apparently, this kind of common courtesy was not common knowledge to the lady in the big black Silverado this morning, who kept inching up behind the car in front of her and nosed me out. I rolled down my passenger’s-side window, and here’s how the exchange went:
“Me: ‘Excuse me, but aren’t we supposed to alternate cars?’
“Silverado: ‘I ordered first.’
“Me: ‘Well, I’m not sure how anyone is supposed to keep track of who orders when. Isn’t it just simpler to go back and forth between lanes?’
“Silverado, shrugging: ‘I was here first.’
“Me: ‘By all means, go right ahead.’
“Am I crazy, or is that obnoxious?”
Though I’ve never had a showdown with a Silverado, I’ve also become gripped with anxiety while sitting in the Freddy’s double drive-through. How the heck are drivers supposed to figure out who goes first? If someone merges out of order, isn’t he going to get my daughter’s dirt-and-worm custard, sticking me with his chili cheese dog with extra onions?
Getting the answers
I decided to go straight to the top for answers, and I got them.
For starters, there’s an important fact that all double drive-through users need to know: It doesn’t matter at all in what order the cars approach the window.
Restaurants that have double drive-through lanes are equipped with cameras that take a snapshot of your car when you order. Through the magic of technology, the computer pops your picture on the screen inside and allows the drive-through attendants to figure out who gets what food. The computer even helps sequence in which order to make the food.
No matter who pulls up first, each customer should get the correct order, said Scott Redler, a co-founder of Freddy’s Frozen Custard. Drivers must decide how to conduct themselves when approaching.
“We’ve seen it both ways,” he said. “Some will go out of their way to wave the other car forward, and some simply feel if they ordered first, they move up first. There’s probably not one correct way, although being courteous is always the best option.”
Matter of efficiency
Double drive-throughs are good for the restaurants, said Bob Lane, owner of Lane Enterprises, which has 27 McDonald’s in the Wichita area. Only five of those restaurants still have single drive-through lanes, and the company has plans to double up eventually, Lane said.
“What it really does is increase our capacity and make things more efficient,” he said.
The idea is that the construction worker who just wants a Quarter Pounder meal and a Coke won’t get stuck waiting behind the mom with a minivan full of kids who all have specific Happy Meal desires. That still could happen, of course, if the worker picks the wrong lane. But it happens less often than it used to, Lane said.
If there’s any doubt at all – say, two gold Honda civics are in the drive-through at the same time – employees are instructed to repeat the key pieces of the order to the drivers as they approach the pay window, then again before they pass the food outside, just to make sure.
Still, the double drive-through concept has been confusing for customers, Lane admits. His stores have signs posted that read “any lane, any time” that are supposed to help clear things up.
Either people don’t read the signs or they don’t understand them, Lane said.
In the end, there are no rules – except civility.
“Let it flow naturally,” Lane said. “You don’t have to fight for position. This isn’t a horse race. Technology makes things work. It’s not willy-nilly.”