How Taco Bell has handled a rush of new drive-thru customers

Drive-thru customer count has surged nearly 50% since the start of the pandemic. Here’s what it’s doing to address the demand.
Photo courtesy of Taco Bell

For much of the past five years, Taco Bell has been focused on improving its drive-thru speed to get a growing number of cars through the lane more quickly.

That effort has paid dividends during the pandemic, as dining rooms closed and demand for the drive-thru skyrocketed. How much? Last year, the Irvine, Calif.-based Mexican fast-food concept served 680 million customers through that lane.

This year, the chain is on pace to generate 1 billion customers through its drive-thrus in the 12 months beginning when the pandemic started in March, a 47% increase in demand.

Despite that surge, the company has trimmed its service time even further, cutting 18 seconds off the time it takes customers to get their drive-thru order.

“It started five years ago, with smaller changes to kitchens, new tools and new training,” Mike Grams, Taco Bell’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. The drive-thru program’s goal has been to cut average drive-thru times to four minutes. “We’ve steadily taken time off. The entire system is behind it, and it’s positioned us well during COVID to see results.”

The chain is now entering its next phase of that effort, trimming a dozen items from its menu in part to ease operations, and devising a new dual-lane prototype that could serve as a testing ground for numerous types of chain-wide drive-thru innovation.

“We’ve put more science behind the menu and the experience, adding technology and ordering” capabilities, Grams said.

The drive-thru has become a pandemic necessity. With diminished options for dining out as dining rooms have closed and remain below capacity, the window has seen its day in the sun. They’ve generated strong enough sales that fast-food chains have seen absolute sales growth for weeks.

Taco Bell’s same-store sales declined 6% in the quarter ended June 30 but generated positive sales in July. David Gibbs, CEO of parent company Yum Brands, called the brand a “bright spot” during the period even as it was outperformed by sister chains KFC and Pizza Hut. That growth has come from the drive-thru.

While it’s not certain how many of those customers will return to walking inside fast-food restaurants to get their orders once the pandemic eases, it’s widely believed drive-thrus will remain a vital part of the customer experience moving forward.

That makes cutting drive-thru times vital for fast-food chains. Long lines have a tendency to frustrate customers who opt instead to go somewhere else. That makes the line itself the first “pain point” customers see in a fast-food concept, Grams said.

The next pain point, he said, is ordering. A menu loaded with items can be difficult to navigate. By trimming items from the menu, that process can be easier and quicker for customers—that also helps operations as the kitchen employees have fewer items to make.

Mobile ordering can also ease this experience, Grams said. Taco Bell’s new Go Mobile prototype, expected to make its debut next year, is designed to integrate mobile ordering throughout the restaurant, giving customers an opportunity to make their orders at home and then pick them up either in the drive-thru or curbside.

The Go Mobile prototype has two drive-thru lanes: one traditional, the other for mobile orders. The company’s mobile app is integrated throughout the concept.

“You’re in the drive-thru with your family, you’re not only trying to remember what they want, you have all of the customization,” Grams said. “Navigating the menu board is really important. The easier we can make that, the better, and with this mobile experience, that should help. All that ordering can be done at home.”

Plus, he said, “If the app works, then that will cut that line for customers who need more time at the traditional board.”

Taco Bell has been among the most aggressive and innovative companies in the business at developing new prototypes to fit different markets. The company in recent years has aimed much of this innovation at urban markets through its “Cantina” concept. It has 60 such locations.

Urban areas have largely struggled during the pandemic. Yet Grams noted that the Cantina concept remains an important development tool as the brand adds new locations in urban areas in the Northeast. “We are so underpenetrated in the Northeast right now,” he said. “We still plan to do big pieces in New York. Where we can, we’ll get drive-thru space in New York. But that’s going to be more of a challenge going forward.”

The Taco Bell Go Mobile prototype is notable in its flexibility. It’s just over half the size of a typical Taco Bell location, giving the brand more options for locations, while acknowledging that dine-in remains less of a focus for consumers.

“We’ve got to have as much flexibility to meet local trade area” needs, Grams said. “It’s less about seating and more about convenience at the drive-thru.”

Many of the ideas in the Go Mobile restaurant have already been integrated inside existing locations. Grams has spent the pandemic in Michigan, and noted that one of his nearby Taco Bell restaurants has been busy serving drive-thru customers and more recently began using “Bellhops,” or employees who use tablets to take orders from customers waiting in the drive-thru line.

And Grams noted that many of the company’s 6,500 existing drive-thru locations can fit another lane. In other words, a lot more Taco Bells can become Go Mobile locations. “We can go in and take the 6,500 drive-thru locations and see if we can retrofit them for the same experience,” Grams said, noting that “many of the lots we have” can fit a second lane.

The different types of formats the company has, Grams said, all have the same foundation: an operating system in the kitchen with multiple production lines that can serve customers quickly. The Go Mobile and Cantina prototypes all build off that foundation with different kinds of access points, but all of them are integrated with new technology.

“America is a mature market, and Taco Bell is a mature brand,” Grams said. “This is about having flexibility to take the brand and still have that branded experience but do it in a way with different access points.”

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