What are the quickest drive-through fast-food restaurant chains?

Photo by Dave Flessner / Motorists go through the drive-through at the Chick-fil-A restaurant on Highway 153 in Hixson Monday afternoon.

Time, it turns out, is relative at Chick-fil-A.

For clock watchers, drive-throughs at the Atlanta-based chain remain the slowest among major fast-food brands, most of which have seen wait times grow during the pandemic, according to a new annual study.

But Chick-fil-A customers aren't buying it. They give the chain's drive-through speed of service the best ratings of any of the brands tested, a separate new survey shows.

And packed drive-throughs at the chicken sandwich stop continue to gather top rankings in other measurements - perhaps making waits more tolerable.

Many restaurants around the nation saw business plummet amid coronavirus concerns and government-set restrictions early in the pandemic. Plenty of dining rooms have yet to reopen. But restaurants with drive-throughs had what turned out to be a strategic advantage in an era of social distancing.

Chick-fil-A, one of the largest U.S. restaurant chains by revenue, had some of the highest per-restaurant sales in its segment last year. It hasn't publicly disclosed how its business has fared in recent months, but long drive-through lines that were common before the pandemic are still evident at some of its restaurants.

Among 10 large fast-food chains, total drive-through times this summer averaged five minutes and 57 seconds, half a minute longer than a year ago, according to SeeLevel HX, an Atlanta-based market research firm conducting its 20th annual review. The time spanned from when a tester pulled into line until they received their food.

Chick-fil-A's average total time increased just two seconds but it still had the longest waits - eight minutes and 9 seconds. Arby's, which is also based in metro Atlanta, had the second-longest average time: six minutes and 34 seconds, almost a minute and a half longer than its mark a year ago.

The shortest average waits were at KFC, at four minutes and 43 seconds, though it ranked last for customer service and accuracy. McDonald's, Taco Bell and KFC each had shorter average waits from a year ago.

A spokesperson for Arby's, which ranked well for customer service, taste and accuracy, wasn't immediately available for comment Friday.

A Chick-fil-A spokeswoman praised the chicken chain's operators and workers "for their dedication to customer service and resiliency during what has been a challenging year for all. They have worked tirelessly to share a smile through a mask and deliver a seamless, contactless experience, primarily in our drive-thrus."

One likely reason for Chick-fil-A's longer waits: Its restaurants tend to serve far more customers, with testers counting nearly three times as many other vehicles in the chain's lines than the industry average, SeeLevel HX found. Both Chick-fil-A and the other chains had more vehicles in line than were counted a year ago.

SeeLevel HX's mystery shoppers gave Chick-fil-A number 1 ratings for order accuracy, customer service and taste.

And Chick-fil-A won the highest ratings in a consumer survey released this week by industry publication QSR. The chain scored the best out of 17 restaurant brands, followed closely by Arby's, Culver's and Panera, according to QSR.

Among the categories Chick-fil-A aced in the QSR consumer survey: order accuracy, friendliness of staff and speed of service.

One thing that reduces the perception of time: Chick-fil-A staff tend to pleasantly greet customers as they are in line, taking orders and payment early on, prior to where speaker boxes would normally be. Often, smiling workers talk to customers twice before they even reach the pickup window.

Chick-fil-A is less focused on timing than other attributes consumers value, said Lisa van Kesteren, SeeLevel HX's chief executive.

"It pays off because Chick-fil-A has a cult-like following," she said.

She said restaurants also face new challenges that could slow down service during the pandemic, such as increased cleaning routines, more food delivery pickups and additional training of new staff brought in after some restaurants eventually reopened or increased operations.

Fastest drive-through restaurants

A study of major fast-food restaurants found the average time for waiting and service combined at the drive-through windows at major chains was 5 minutes and 56.8 seconds. KFC, McDonald's and Taco Bell were faster in 2020 than in 2019. The quickest drive-through lines were at: 1. KFC - 4 minutes and 28.3 seconds 2. Taco Bell - 5 minutes and 10.2 seconds 3. Hardee's - 5 minutes and 21.6 seconds 4. Carl's Jr. - 5 minutes and 41.6 seconds 5. Burger King - 5 minutes and 44.3 seconds 6. McDonald's - 5 minutes and 49.3 seconds 7. Dunkin' - 5 minutes and 51.7 seconds 8. Wendy's - 5 minutes and 58.7 seconds 9. Arby's - 6 minutes and 34.2 seconds 10. Chick-fil-A - 8 minutes and 8.8 seconds Source: 2020 Seelevel HX Annual drive-thru study. Participants in the study ordered food through the drive-thru at locations of each of the chains studied across the country between June and August 2020. 1,490 total quick-service drive-thru visits were made, with most orders (54.8%) taking place during lunch hours. Total Time equals wait and service times combined. There was an average of 3.2 vehicles in line when a car pulled into a drive-thru during the survey period.