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Time flies in fast-food drive-through race

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002


What takes an average of 173.56 seconds?

a) Saddam changing his mind on weapons inspections.

b) A Major League Baseball team hiring, then firing, its manager.

c) The lull between hurricanes striking Louisiana.

d) Navigating the drive-through at a Checkers restaurant.

You're correct if you picked answer (d). Customers of Tampa's Checkers Drive-In Restaurants waited an average two minutes and 53.56 seconds to order their food and get it via the drive-through.

That's pretty quick. The drive-through wait at Steak n Shake averages just under five minutes.

On the other hand, the average drive-through time at Wendy's is a blazing 127.21 seconds (two minutes and 7.21 seconds), or more than 46 seconds faster than Checkers.

Hey, in the fast-food business, drive-through speed counts. Many fast-food chains sell more via the drive-through than to walk-in customers. A difference of seconds in the drive-through service translates to thousands of dollars over a year.

In the latest annual survey of best fast-food performers in the drive-through lane, Checkers ranked No. 7. The survey was conducted by a trade magazine called QSR. Those initials stand for "quick service restaurant" and reinforce how critical fast delivery of food is to this segment of the restaurant business.

In sheer speed, Wendy's ranked No. 1, improving its drive-through time by more than seven seconds over last year's 134.67 seconds. Chick-fil-A ranked No. 2 in speed, followed in order by McDonald's, Taco Bell, Krystal, Burger King and Checkers.

Checkers improved its drive-through time in this year's survey, shaving 13.45 seconds off last year's time. But Checkers has yet to regain its stature in 2000, when it ranked No. 2 with an average drive-through time of 153.56 seconds.

In the overall rankings, Wendy's was toppled from its No. 1 spot this year by Chick-fil-A. Checkers ranked No. 8. The overall rankings of drive-through performance are based not only on speed, but order accuracy, the appearance of the menu board and speaker clarity.

No word if QSR will add "fat content" as a category to its annual fast-food survey.

* * *

Amid the corporate rush to dump geographically limiting names, the decision this week to put an end to "Florida Power" by its North Carolina parent is no surprise.

Who knows? At this rate, the state of Florida itself may eventually surrender its name if the price is right.

Raleigh's Progress Energy said it will kill off the separate names of both its electric utilities -- Florida Power in this state and CP&L in North Carolina. Instead, Progress Energy will use its own name on all major businesses. That keeps things simple, the company says, and in Florida ends the decades of customer and Wall Street confusion between Florida Power and its larger South Florida competitor, Florida Power & Light.

If the Tampa Bay area is losing its most historically prominent corporate brand, North Carolina consumers also must say farewell to their well known CP&L (Carolina Power & Light, which dates back to 1908).

Raleigh's newspaper, the News & Observer, called Carolina Power & Light "one of the oldest and best-known brand names in the (Research) Triangle."

Get used to it. Location-specific names like "Carolina" and "Florida" are Dumpster-bound. One analyst, Tim Winter of A.G. Edwards in St. Louis, says one easily identifiable corporate name will become critical if and when deregulation arrives and consumers get to choose which power company provides electricity.

Maybe. But this also feels like one more bland step closer to the demise of all regional differences.

* * *

It's sad to see the area's fledgling TechVillage high-tech incubator close its doors after little more than a year. That's not enough time to prove anybody's worth. But let's get real. When the non-profit incubator opened on the campus of the University of Tampa in the late summer of 2001, I wrote a column about it with this snarky headline: Bay area tech incubator's here, but will it lay an egg?

Well, that annoyed TechVillage board chairman and area tech promoter Marty Donsky, who quickly e-mailed me a valiant defense (or two) of his infant incubator. Truth is, the Tampa Bay market is better for having tried a TechVillage. Hats off to Donsky, his incubator peers and their combined enthusiasm for making the effort. TechVillage was an idea desperately late on the tech curve. With the bursting of the Internet bubble, a recession, the nation's preoccupation with 9/11, this area's apparent lack of tech entrepreneurs, and the inability of TechVillage to prove itself as a must-have facility, the end was probably inevitable.

Did we learn something? Sure. Non-profit, volunteer-subsidized, weakly supported incubators have a challenging future in the best of technology times. But when the area economy emerges from the current doldrums, don't assume a TechVillage II (aka Largo's Young-Rainey STAR Center?) won't emerge to play an important role.

Short takes

WHAT IS IT ABOUT banks based in the Carolinas and their eternal quest to expand in Florida? As if Charlotte's Bank of America and First Union (soon changing its name to Wachovia in this state) don't already dominate Florida's banking market, more deals are popping this week. South Carolina's South Financial Group is buying Central Bank of Tampa, while North Carolina's BB&T Corp. is adding a Lakeland bank to its nest. When will we see the acquisition of a major Carolina business by a Florida company? When the Sunshine State freezes over . . .

BULLISH WAS AN UNDERSTATEMENT about the mid-1990s culture at the Tampa headquarters of up-and-coming Powercerv. The enterprise software company had just gone public and raised $42-million. Three young founders -- Harold Ross, Marc Fratello and Roy Crippen III -- entertained customers aboard their nearby boat, the Isabella. And the company boasted 400 employees whose salaries averaged $50,000. That was before the tech tsunami hit. This week, a vastly diminished, 24-employee Powercerv agreed to sell its assets for a trifling $590,000 to an out-of-state company . . .

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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