Special Report | October 2016 | By Sam Oches

Inside Taco Bell’s Drive-Thru Strategy

Bettering the employee experience translated to improved customer service—on all fronts.
Taco Bell

Taco Bell has been on a roll of late. The chain has enjoyed healthy growth while also re-establishing itself as a cultural touchstone, with menu items like the Doritos Locos Tacos and Quesalupa and marketing programs like its massively popular Snapchat campaign earning kudos from younger generations.

That recent success extends to the drive thru. The brand had above-average speed and accuracy this year, as well as solid customer-service scores. All of this comes just two years after the chain upgraded its menuboards, headsets, speakers, and other back-of-house operations in an attempt to improve upon the drive-thru fundamentals.

Mike Grams, Taco Bell’s chief operating officer, says the recent changes made employees’ experience better, which translated to the customers. In addition, the changes make the drive thru more efficient, which helps as the outdoor lane becomes a more popular option.

“If you look at drive-thru businesses today, you make a commitment on an asset for 20 years, and the drive-thru lane stays the same,” he says. “Despite all the other enhancements you do, the drive-thru lane doesn’t get bigger. What we’re trying to do is to find other ways to … relieve pressure off the drive thru.” That’s included improving the dine-in experience to pull more customers inside, he says.

As for the future of Taco Bell’s drive thru, there are a lot of irons in the fire. The company is taking a close look at mobile ordering, especially the way mobile tools allow for group ordering occasions. And Grams thinks voice activation will soon become a major part of the drive-thru experience, maybe even more so than mobile ordering.

For now, though, Taco Bell hopes to play up the culinary experience at its restaurants with a new open-kitchen store prototype that “has a little theater to it,” Grams says. The prototype features a glass wall along the drive thru that lets guests see into the kitchen as their food is being prepared.

“The idea behind the open kitchen is basically to break down a lot of those walls and create more of the kitchen experience,” he says. “We’re pretty proud of the ingredients we have and how we make them and how we care for them. And I think it’s us opening that up to allow consumers to see that and build trust.”

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