Sure, “fast” in fast-food or fast-casual restaurants implies an element of speed, but how fast do Americans think these restaurants should serve them before they take their business elsewhere? Does the need for speed reign supreme, or is patience truly a virtue?  

Fast-food diners say “5 minutes or less.”

According to the latest CivicScience data, 27% of U.S. adults who eat at fast-food restaurants (such as Chick-fil-A or McDonald’s) expect to receive their food after ordering within 2-3 minutes at the most, while a plurality (42%) say 5 minutes should be the max wait time. For 7% of respondents, “fast” actually means immediate, as they feel there shouldn’t be any waiting involved at all (n= 2,540).

Additional data show fast-casual restaurant diners (such as Panera Bread, Chipotle, or Five Guys) have a bit more leeway for a wait. Those willing to wait up to 15 minutes for their order are nearly triple that of fast-food eaters (13% to 5%), but the highest concentration of max wait time falls between 5 minutes (34%) and 10 minutes (30%). However, nearly a quarter say the wait time at these restaurants should be under 3 minutes (n=2,531). 

Longer wait times have driven away fast-food diners.

The speed at which fast-food orders are fulfilled can impact people’s restaurant choices and cause them to abandon their first choice. According to a recent CivicScience poll (n=1,824), more than one-third (36%) of fast-food diners say they have recently either switched to a different fast-food establishment or stopped visiting a specific restaurant due to wait times.

In addition, another 17% have yet to make any changes based on slow fast food wait times but are considering doing so.

But speed doesn’t always outweigh other factors for fast-food diners.

Inflation may be high, and wait times lead some customers to reconsider where they order, but neither price nor speed are among the top two considerations for restaurant choice. Just 16% of fast-food diners say ‘speed of service’ is most important to them, whereas ‘menu variety’ (39%) and ‘healthiness of the food’ (22%) are more likely to be leading factors when deciding on a fast-food restaurant. ‘Price’ (17%) is slightly more important than speed, while diners are least influenced by ‘friendliness of the employees’ (7%).

When it comes to ordering fast-food, more than half prefer the drive-through.

New CivicScience polling data find that drive-throughs are the most popular way to order – 51% of fast-food diners prefer to order from the comfort of their cars. One-quarter (24%) prefer going inside and ordering for themselves, while 16% like to place their order online and then pick it up at the restaurant. Despite a small uptick in food delivery app usage in Q1 of  2023, just 8% of fast-food diners prefer using an app (such as DoorDash or Uber Eats) to have their food delivered. 

Drive-through preference increases with age, where 61% of those 55+ lean toward the drive-through compared to 36% of Gen Z adults. Rather, nearly half of Gen Z fast-food diners prefer to order online/pick up or use delivery services.

Other restaurant insights CivicScience has cooking:

  • Gen Z adults aged 18-24 prefer fast-food and prioritize speed, with the highest likelihood among age groups to expect no waiting time for their orders at fast-food (19%) and fast-casual (18%) restaurants.
  • Of fast-food customers who said wait times should be no longer than 5 minutes, 54% also said the drive-through is their most-preferred method of ordering fast food.
  • High-income earners making $150K+ per year are the most likely income level to prioritize speed of service when choosing a fast-food restaurant. They’re also most likely to believe 2-3 minutes is the longest amount of time to wait for a fast-food order.

As Americans consider fast-food and fast-casual restaurants for their meals, their definitions of “fast” vary. But, how long they’re waiting to receive food after ordering can be enough to influence changes in where they decide to eat, even if it’s not the leading factor.

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