The COVID-19 pandemic threw a major curveball at the restaurant industry in mid-March, forcing brands nationwide to adapt.
By March 15, traditional Taco Bell restaurants began operating via drive-thru, while urban in-line and non-drive thru restaurants opened for carryout only.
The company amended its sick policy at domestic company-owned stores by paying employees who are required to stay home or who work at a closed restaurant. They’ve encouraged franchisees to do the same.
In a letter, CEO Mark King told customers that “franchisees and team members have an obligation to do something to help stop this from spreading.” The company has done so through seven enhanced safety steps: requiring contactless service and payment, mandating that employees wear gloves and masks where required, sealing bags, implementing “industry-leading” sanitation standards, dedicating a specific role to deep cleaning, providing extra sanitation options for customers, and checking employee temperatures.
Mike Grams, president and global chief operating officer, answered questions about how the fast-food chain is putting safety first amid the pandemic.
The pandemic is unprecedented and ever-changing, requiring swift action and decision-making on the part of operators. Could you describe Taco Bell’s ideation process in terms of formulating what safety measures to enact?
When COVID-19 became a reality in the U.S. over a month ago, we immediately set out with the goal of being the safest place to eat and the safest place to work.
To inform our decision-making, we leveraged intel from a variety of experts, used learnings from the experiences of our sister brands in other countries and maintained a constant two-way dialogue with our restaurant field teams and franchisees to ensure we were listening to and meeting their needs.
In mid-March, we updated our paid sick leave policy and were one of the first brands to voluntarily close our dining rooms in a cautious effort to keep our teams and guests safe. Shortly after, we launched a COVID-specific page on our website so we could transparently share updates with our guests and have done the same for our Team Members via a separate microsite. Most recently, we introduced our "7 Enhanced Safety Steps," which began rolling out in restaurants across the U.S. last week. Internally these steps are reflected in our service and safety measures, which roll out sequentially every few weeks.
Have there been any challenges or obstacles to ensuring each Taco Bell restaurant has an ample supply of gloves, masks, and thermometers?
Throughout this process, we have followed the recommendations of both the CDC and WHO for how best to respond. In this fluid situation, we recognize there are a lot of real-time learnings and quickly recognized the high demand for frontline healthcare workers and first responders. As those functions were the priority in receiving masks, we held off on ordering to both follow the CDC recommendations and allow the supply chain to catch up.
Now, as supply is being made available, we are actively distributing non-medical grade masks to our entire system. While some restaurants already provide masks, especially in areas where face coverings are mandated, we are now ensuring all restaurants, regardless of requirement, will be supplied with masks to ensure both the comfort and safety of everyone who experiences Taco Bell.
Are there any challenges in balancing extra sanitation efforts with an effective throughput?
There has been zero impact on throughput and our team members have been agile and flexible in adapting to the evolving standards. Everything is moving quickly, and we’re really impressed with how our franchisees have been able to evolve their operating systems and accommodate for the safety of our guests and their teams.
Many industry veterans say that cleanliness will be at the forefront of restaurants’ marketing efforts in post-pandemic life. In what ways has Taco Bell promoted its enhanced safety measures to customers?
Customers can check the COVID-19 response landing page on our website, where we regularly share our enhanced health and safety measures and our progress towards those goals. We have also been actively sharing these ongoing updates across our social channels.
Could you provide more detail on the ‘dedicated cleaning role’ and what’s expected out of that role throughout a shift?
We have dedicated a person to increase frequency of cleaning, this person will clean high-traffic touchpoints for customers throughout their dining experience both in restaurant and in the drive-thru. Team members in this role will be trained to signal to the customer that we are preparing their order properly and ultimately, safely. We are utilizing cleaning products and procedures brought to us by partners and suppliers to implement this as well.
One of Taco Bell’s safety measures is ‘industry-leading sanitation standards.’ Could you describe those standards and what’s involved in the specialized training with the industry-leading experts?
On top of our existing industry-leading training, we have layered in new standard protocols. For example, our food champions have always worn gloves, and now every team member inside our restaurants must as well. This, along with masks, sealing all bags, and temperature checks for our restaurant employees, are all enhancements being made at this time to ensure the safety of our employees and customers.
Employees are required to participate in a quarterly ‘Standard Food Safety’ class that covers everything from hand washing, to personal hygiene education, to temperature checks on food. All the basics of sanitation standards are taught repeatedly throughout the year, but due to the severity of the pandemic, we decided to expand upon these trainings and bring in experts to bolster the curriculum.
Have there been any discussions of post-pandemic operations like possible capacity limits or any other safety precautions when dining rooms are allowed to reopen?
Our operating system is incredibly flexible and can accommodate, if needed, physical distancing inside our dining rooms. This, along with an increased frequency of cleaning high-touch and self-service areas, are only pieces of our post-pandemic precautions.
We do foresee things like increased delivery and mobile ordering usage, as well as contactless payment sticking around. We know that the behaviors that are changing today that make life easier and safer will be the behaviors that carry into the future.
For the urban in-line and non-drive thru restaurants operating carryout only, how is health and safety ensured for customers and third-party drivers entering the stores?
We apply the same safety standards for carryout and delivery as we do with drive thru, which includes contactless payment, carefully sealing orders, and team members wearing gloves and face masks.
What type of message does Taco Bell hope to give consumers through these safety measures?
Our customers care about our team members almost as much as we do, and we want them to know that we are committed to being the safest place to eat and the safest place to work. At a time when people need that comfort and familiarity, our drive-thrus will be open to provide the food that our fans know and love, in the safest way possible. We know that we have a role to play in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and are doing everything we can to help end this global crisis.