We put fast food drive-thrus to the test--and find out where you really can have it your way.
By Phil A. O'Fish
JANUARY 26, 1998: "Uh, I'm sorry," the voice squawked apprehensively over the drive-thru speaker of the Cumberland Avenue Krystal, "but we don't serve gravy except at breakfast, sir."
Waitaminnit, I thought. Aren't we in the South? Since when was gravy a breakfast-only treat in these parts? Surely, if it's good enough for thousands of blue-haired grannies all over Dixie, it's good enough for some half-bright rube with a Krystal pocket pal.
So what if our request had been a little...unusual. So what if we wanted our gravy to be ladled over a "Big K"Krystal's most greasy and imposing concoction of dead flesh and withered foliage, with half of the ingredients stricken and the other half doubled to soupy excess? Whatever happened to customer satisfaction?
None of it really mattered, though, because Frankie was in the driver's seat placing the order, and he was oblivious, lost in a zone. His huge eyes were glazed, rolling back into his head like one of those hill-country revival preachers moments before he reaches for the copperhead. "I'm also gonna need three cheese Krystals with no onions, condiments on the bottom bun; two chili cheese pups with no hot dog, and..." By the time the Rapture had passed, I feared that Frankie had ravished my expense account with a single trip through Krystal's drive-thru.
So why was my friend Frankie making a mockery of this hapless fast food menu, concocting such bizarre hybrids as had surely never been envisioned by Krystal's corporate mucky-mucks? Wellin the interest of consumer awareness, of course; consumer awareness, served with a side dish of misanthropy and vengeance.
The bitter victim of one too many drive-thru faux pas (never discovered, naturally, until after I'd arrived home with my bag of goodies), I had decided to make a substantive appraisal of fast food take-out performance. Using highly advanced random selection techniques (10 names and a hat), I chose five major emporiums as my corporate guinea pigsKrystal, McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Wendy'sand planned an assault on two Knoxville locations of each chain.
My purpose would be to rate each drive-thru in terms of speed, accuracy, staff response, and food quality. To ensure that the tests be suitably rigorous, every order would, by design, be a "special" one, rife with deletions and additions from all parts of the menu.
Then I assembled a team, a crack staff of fast food connoisseurs that included myself, an aspiring monster truck journalist; my associate Frankie the Toe, a former Detroiter of dubious reputation, our driver, and hatchetman; and my neighbor Ms. Freda, a part-time photographer in charge of recording our misadventures for posterity.
"These smell like butt!" Ms. Freda shrieked, wedging open the diminutive buns of two chili cheese pups, sans wieners. Her first reaction was telling, if a little too frank; our Krystal sojourns did about as much for our collective appetite as a headlong romp through a New York City dumpster.
Upon leaving the Cumberland store, we found that all of Frankie's special requests had been satisfied, albeit a bit half-heartedly; there was maybe one extra pickle on our K, and the onions on three cheese Krystals had obviously been scraped off after the fact.
As for food quality...well, to put it bluntly, there was none to be found. The paste of chili and cheese that glued our "pups" together had roughly the consistency of drywall putty, while the burger patty
on the Big K resembled one of those fossilized monstrosities typically served in grade school cafeterias.
The service at our second Krystal stop (the Bearden store) was snappier, although our attendant, a countrified bottle blonde, shot us the kind of affronted glare usually reserved for people who fart in the middle of benediction. Our food was hotter, and our Big K had visibly greater portions of pickle and mustard. Better service and warmer food couldn't atone for an intrinsic lack of quality, however; the heavy wet fumes from all that corrupted beef were beginning to make Ms. Freda's ankles swell, so we quickly stashed our Krystal bags in the trunk.
"A Big Macno special sauce, and no meat." Frankie placed the order slowly and deliberately, another base grin seeping across his broad face.
I felt myself shudder involuntarily. A hamburger with no burger; as far as I was concerned, the folks at Mickey D's should just as soon sell pot brownies and blotter acid to the kiddies in McPlayland as serve us a veggie Mac. Either way, the moral implications were too gruesome to ponder.
But there it was, a towering lettuce-and-American-cheese sandwich loosely stuck together with mayonnaise on three sesame-seed-encrusted buns. The second portion of our order at the Cumberland store was also properly filled; a regular hamburger, with ketchup on the bottom bun. But the burger was an impoverished-looking little silver dollar of a patty, almost dwarfed by an accompanying pickle, and charred nearly beyond recognition. And perhaps in vengeful response to our finicky mandates, the bun had been soaked through with enough ketchup to douse the extras in three cheap slasher films.
McDonald's II, near West Town Mall, offered better, friendlier service, and the ratio of ketchup-to-burger on our second order fell somewhere within the limits of propriety. Our hamburger patty was also less crispy than the one we'd seen earlier, although neither store could lay claim to better than middling food.
We found little to complain about at either of the Knoxville Taco Bell locations we visited, although it certainly wasn't for any lack of effort on Frankie's part. By the time he had finished rearranging the ingredients to what was ostensibly a seven-layer burrito, it had been transformed into another menu item entirelya beef-bean chinchilla, or some such thing.
Neither store (on Cumberland Avenue and on Kingston Pike near Food City) seemed fazed by our shenanigans; they dutifully recorded and filled our bizarre requests with hardly a note of puzzlement. Service at the west location was particularly expedient, given that we placed (and quickly received) our order there at the onset of their 5 o'clock drive-thru rush.
But what really set Taco Bell apart from the other fast food chains was that its food products not only passed muster but thrived when subjected to open bun/tortilla analysis. Whereas naked exposure to the Big K, for instance, sent us scrambling for room fresheners and air sickness bags, raw Taco Bell ingredients seemed fresh, well-prepared, even appetizing.
The only downside to our Taco Bell excursions was that in both instances, it took us the better part of a half hour to get Frankie back on the road. No sooner had the taco wrappers been breached than he was lost like a pig in a trough, shoveling refried beans and grated cheese into his mouth, mumbling, between bites, "Mmmpphh... Good!...Best food product we've seen all day!...mmph..."
Frankie had a dreadful case of sour stomach the following morning, but perhaps that's an issue best left for another test.
"The key to winning the fast food game is looking at them the way they look at you," Frankie pronounced knowingly as he eased up to the Wendy's drive-thru on the west side of Bearden Hill. "The Enemy."
Well, Frankie never was much with public relations, I thought, but maybe he had a point. Today, even his most fanciful menu hybrids had been at least partially assembled by the incentive-deficient worker bees on the other side of the sliding glass.
And such was the case at the westerly Wendy's, as well. Our attendant was unfailingly polite, if a tad flustered by Frankie's requesta Classic Greek Pita, add a chicken breast and lots of mustard. We received the order promptly and found it had been filled with only one minor, perhaps understandable modification; rather than a whole chicken breast, our pita was filled with diced chicken, looking an awful lot like the Chicken Caesar Pita.
As far as food quality is concerned, I've long felt that Wendy's claimed by far the best of the fast food hamburgersa dubious tribute, but a tribute nonetheless. I won't vouch so enthusiastically for its pita menu although, admittedly, the edibility quotient of the Classic Greek probably rises considerably when the item hasn't been hosed with mustard.
Our overall Wendy's experience might have rated favorably had it not been for a few gross breeches of PR on the part of the campus store. After what seemed to us an inordinately long wait (admittedly during the dinner rush), our order was greeted with a "Please hold for just one moment." And when a surly attendant finally shoved our bag of goods at us, we discovered that Big Dave's minions had given us a Classic Greek Pita and a chicken sandwich, with no apparent attempt to accommodate the spirit of our order. We all agreed; Wendy's failed on sheer lack of effort.
Our Burger King odyssey didn't start out much better than Wendy's, round II. Our campus attendant wasn't quite sure what to make of what might have been our most bizarre order of the daya Big Fish sandwich, 86 the bun, 86 the fish, add extra cheese.
The campus store had almost no other business when we made our stop around 3 in the afternoon, so our order only took a minute to prepare. But the fish sandwich, though bereft of fish, contained no extra cheese, and the few remaining ingredients were arranged, with no attempt at concealment, on a big, starchy, seedy bun. Our second order, a bacon double cheeseburger with most of the condiments deep-sixed, was obviously a retaliatory groin shot, a vengeance move of brazen transparency. Dried and blackened, this was the most hideous conglomeration of burger-like, bacon-like products any of us had ever been served in anything remotely resembling a food service establishment. The only thing missing was a big gooey wad of spit.
But Burger King's corporate reputation was at least partially salvaged, to our way of thinking, by our trip to the Kingston Pike store near Bearden High. Our attendant, a stout, cheerful middle-aged lady in a pink blouse caught on to our antics pretty quickly. After a couple of starts and stops, she happily served us exactly what we requested; a Big Fish cardboard box, its bottom section covered with gooey layers of tartar sauce and cheese. Our bacon double cheeseburger, on the other hand, was hot, juicy, and flavorful.
And what's more, our B.K. benefactor gave us a nifty detachable Mr. Potatohead toy since we'd stricken the fish from our sandwich. "It's the kind that rolls; it doesn't wobble," she assured us. If Taco Bell had offered us the best overall service across two locations, the drive-thru lady at B.K. West was surely our Employee of the Day.
By 6 p.m. that evening, we were a sorry, ravaged lot. And there was nothing in our surroundings to buoy our spirits. The emerging picture of local fast food was not a pretty one; outside of Taco Bell, the best we had found was a single sterling Burger King franchise and mediocre Mickey D's. The sodden pile of food and trash that had accumulated between floor and car ceiling, meanwhile, stank like some festering third-world garbage mound.
Ms. Freda had begun to jabber distractedly, her mind shot on sesame seeds, mumbling some mean business about power tools and herbal gardening. Frankie was moving slowly; sick and bloated, he was fortified with a near-toxic blood-to-grease ratio. As for myself, I was tired, but not spent. The Test had been revealing, if at times a little harsh. Next week, perhaps, we'd look at fast food restroom culture, beginning with stall graffiti...
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