Fast-food order accuracy rises with English-fluent hiring pool

— -- If your next fast-food order at the drive-through has the right food in the right bag, you may have something surprising to thank: the bad economy.

Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants ckr, which owns the Carl's Jr. and Hardee's fast-food chains, says that in the past six months, Carl's Jr.'s 478 locations in Southern California in particular have been able to recruit crewmembers more fluent in English, and thus are able to process drive-through orders more accurately.

"It's a no-brainer," Puzder says. "Hiring people who are fluent in English has always been something we've wanted to do. Now we can."

That's because, with layoffs on the rise — particularly in hard-hit Southern California — the chain can be more selective in hiring. The unemployment rate in California hit 7.7% in August vs. the national rate of 6.1% — the most recent month from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bob Sandelman, a fast-food researcher, is not surprised order accuracy is up and puts the reason bluntly: "When times are tough, people are willing to take jobs for which they're over-qualified."

For the fast-food world overall, order accuracy is a nagging problem. At drive-throughs, botched orders are the No. 1 problem, says, Sherri Daye Scott, editor at QSR Magazine, which does an annual ranking on order accuracy. "Speed is less important to consumers than getting orders right."

QSR's statistics show Carl's accuracy clearly is improving — up to 93.6% in the QSR study conducted this spring vs. 89.3% in the accuracy study it conducted in spring of 2007. When QSR did its research in 2007, "language barrier" was an issue for 3.8% of its drive-through purchases at Carl's vs. 1.2% this spring.

Carl's is not hiring fewer Latinos or other minorities — those numbers are the same, Puzder says. But it is hiring more crewmembers with more skills. "I can't believe this is unique to Carl's," he adds. "We're all hiring from the same labor pool."

Also, he notes, employee turnover is down as folks hang onto jobs.

Denny Lynch, a Wendy's wen spokesman, says the chain "intuitively" sees what Puzder means. Wendy's turnover is down, and it is seeing "an improved quantity and quality" of job seekers.

"With a larger labor pool of applicants to choose from, we are able to more efficiently fill positions with qualified candidates," says Deborah Martin, a rep for Burger King.

Executives at the League of United Latin American Citizens say they want to be sure Hispanics have fair opportunities, but they see the effects of the economy. "The importance of language skills varies job to job," says Darryl Morin, a LULAC director. "With the expanding labor pool, you're able to find candidates with better training."