The Core of New Taco Bell Prototype: Load-Balancing
Taco Bell's latest prototype features a drive-thru lane specifically for digital order pickup.
The new, futuristic Taco Bell prototype is smaller, more digitally focused and primed for off-premises efficiency.
The most visible change in the Go Mobile format is a new drive-thru specifically for digital order pickup, potentially the first digital outlet in mass-market QSR. Similar to a new Chipotle drive-thru dubbed the “Chipotlane,” the second drive-thru will cater just to digital customers, getting them out of the traditional line while lessing slowdowns for standard drive-thru customers.
The second notable change is the size. At as small as 1,325 square feet, the new Taco Bell prototype is mostly a kitchen. In renderings, the dining area amounts to a small, outward facing bar. That sheds more than 1,000 feet from the traditional 2,500-square-foot location.
Mike Grams, global COO at Taco Bell, said this version is on the small end and there will be flexibility in the design for markets that have a good portion of dine-in traffic. He said the new format is a continuation of the trend toward off-premises and digital ordering.
Also in the mix is a robust curbside option and a new, decluttered menu board that is rolling out right now, ahead of the projected first Go Mobile location set to open in the first quarter of 2021. All of this was part of Taco Bell's roadmap, said Grams, but things accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The roadmap was established as customers converted to digital,” said Grams. “As digital opened up and dining rooms closed, we leaned in a little faster. COVID definitely accelerated it.”
Perhaps the most important part of the new prototype is not the new outlets or the more efficient footprint, but how everything is connected at the heart of the Go Mobile facility. That starts with a tech-enabled kitchen that routes between the three production lines (two traditional lines and a speed-focused line for peak periods).
“It’s not hard to add extra drive-thru lanes or build access. I think the challenge is how do you do that in a way that creates a really good kitchen experience,” said Grams. “We added capacity to the kitchen, added a third speed line. We wanted to make sure the team experience in the kitchen was manageable.”
If a big order hits or the lunch rush is especially busy, even that excess capacity can get disrupted and one line is struggling while the speed line employee is gazing out the window.
“When a customer places an order, that routing goes to the kitchen, it distributes the orders evenly across the system so it’s dynamic routing. The communication is critical, staff can read the order see the modifications. It distributes the orders across the lines, load-balancing if you will,” said Grams. “That will help guide the customer to the best pickup option.”
He said it’s essentially what airports have done to ease the various annoyances of air travel.
“Now they put that process online but when they arrive, they had this long security line" so "they created precheck. That’s the kind of thinking we’re applying to the whole drive-thru experience,” said Grams. “It’s not hard to understand in a drive-thru and the pain points, so just watching and listening you can prioritize the technology.”
In the new model, when a digital order comes in, that customer can be directed either by the app or a new “bellhop” position in the company that directs customers at peak times to the best option for fulfilling their order. For a third-party delivery driver with a big order, maybe that’s curbside pickup or parking and coming in. For the small-order digital consumer, that’s probably the digital drive-thru. But at off-peak times without a lot of traffic, maybe it’s the standard drive-thru. Just like the food is routed to the right station to keep things manageable for the staff, customers are routed to the right experience for them.
Grams said the prototype marks the next step in more efficient drive-thru operations, which accounts for about 70 percent of Taco Bell’s business. The company did $700 million out the window last year, and if the COVID-era run rate continues, the company is on track to crest $1 billion in drive-thru sales. Getting more orders through quickly and catering to consumers across the in-person, digital and delivery spectrum just means more volume for the location and better margins. That’s something franchisees are excited about.
“I’m excited because the brand is healthy, our franchisees are incredibly healthy and there’s so much pull to go faster from our franchisees. When you take on big initiatives, there’s this element of testing for a long time, but this to me is a no-brainer and our franchisees agree,” said Grams. “When you have that partnership, it makes it so much easier to apply the template so much faster.”
He said he expects to see retrofits and updates to the Go Mobile model starting soon after the first-quarter opening of the initial prototype.