Candid camera at the fast-food drive-thru

Wendy's, McDonald's and other chains test technology that will match customers with their orders.

By Parija B. Kavilanz, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- Smile! Candid camera could soon be coming to the fast-food drive-thru near you.

With more than 70 percent of fast-food orders today coming at drive-thrus rather than at restaurant counters, leading chains such as Wendy's (Charts) and McDonald's (Charts) are testing new technology aimed at combating some of the growing problems facing the $142 billion fast-food industry: Things like long lines, rude service and incorrect orders.

Fast-food chains are struggling to improve drive-thru effciency
Matching the order to the customer at a Wendy's drive-thru.

Exit41, a closely held Boston-based based provider of technology for the fast-food industry, has developed the system, called "Order Perfect."

Exit41 CEO Joe Gagnon said the system was developed primarily for restaurant locations with multiple drive-thrus. The technology is already in use in 40 locations across the nation, including select Wendy's, McDonald's and Burger King (Charts) locations, Gagnon said.

Here's how it works: when a customer places an order at the drive-thru speaker, the order is taken by someone at a remote "order center." The order is then sent right back to the restaurant where it was received.

Gagnon said the purpose of using an order center is to speed up the process, especially during peak times when restaurant workers are busy taking orders, delivering food, pouring drinks and mopping floors.

A little Big Brother-ish?

The second component of the technology is even more interesting, and somewhat controversial. It involves a camera located at the drive-thru order window that takes a picture of the customer and the car.

According to Gagnon, the pictures help staff accurately match the order to the customer, thus cutting down on botched orders.

While that makes sense, plenty of people could be very uncomfortable with the idea that they're being photographed every time they make a quick stop for a double cheeseburger with fries.

Gagnon insisted that Picture Perfect is a "non-invasive" procedure. "The photos aren't stored in our system. They're deleted as soon as the order is completed," he said. "A lot of restaurants already have surveillance cameras on their premises that photograph people."

Nevertheless, he conceded that a handful of customers did ask restaurant staff why they needed to be photographed. "So some of the restaurants that use our picture technology decided to put up a disclaimer letting people know they will be photographed at the order point," he said.

Still, some consumer privacy advocates are concerned.

"Just having this infrastructure in place is very troubling," said Liz McIntyre, a consumer privacy advocate and co-author of "Spy Chips."

"It's nice to hear that the picture will be deleted, but who knows," McIntyre said. "We know that many companies use video surveillance not only for safety reasons but also to do market research. These restaurant chains could do the same."

"A Big Brother society is creeping into this country and this is one more example of that," she added.

Industry experts take a different view.

"It's a little Big Brotherish but I think eventually it'll be a minor issue," said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a food service research and consulting firm.

As a majority of their business moves to the drive-thrus, fast-food chains have to do whatever they can to lower waiting time and improve order accuracy, Goldin said.

"Given the changing nature of the business, I think this new technology would be of great interest to companies," he added. "Order accuracy has plagued them. It's become a big customer irritant. There's a real need to do something about it. I'm curious to know if this new technology has been successful."

Putting 'fast' back into fast-food

Kevin Fritton, executive vice president of 256 Operating Associates, a Wendy's franchisee that operates 14 locations in New Hampshire and Vermont, said he's deployed the Order Perfect system at six of those outlets.

So far, the system is helping, not hurting, business, Fritton said.

The system has helped shave about eight seconds from the order to delivery time. "Besides order accuracy, it's helped speed up the drive-thru process and addressed the customer courtesy issue," he said. He said he understands that Wendy's was testing the system at four other locations.

Exit41's Gagnon, who worked at a McDonald's when he was 16 and later became a consultant for the industry, said he believes technology like Order Perfect can help the industry make workers more productive, and even lower turnover.

"Time-starved consumers will start to avoid your restaurant if you always have a long line. This will eventually hurt productivity," said Gagnon. "What we're trying to do is put the fast back into fast-food."

"We don't want consumers to be intimidated by new technology. Eventually, the key to its adoption is that consumers shouldn't even feel like there's been a drastic change even as their experience improves," he said.

McDonald's, the No. 1 fast food chain, is also said to be testing using call centers for drive-through orders. Officials at McDonald's and Burger King were not immediately available for comment.

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