Engler and Border Foods have been Taco Bell franchisees for 36 years. They dabbled in other brands but always returned to Yum!’s taco giant. Since 2013, the company hasn’t strayed. It will close out the year with about 240 locations, going along at a pace of roughly 10 new incremental builds a year and 20–25 remodels per calendar. Border Foods has no outside money or equity.
Engler, who is 65, told Grams and Taco Bell CEO Mark King Border Foods would build Defy on its own nickel. Taco Bell was tasked with making the tech work and Strommen struck a deal with the chain on the lifts.
Speaking of, the lifts were A1 on the task chart. They ran outside in the winter. Through rain. Everything a surly Midwestern season could throw at it. Engler estimates the lifts spun 500,000 revolutions before getting green-lighted. Parallel, the parties met with Taco Bell for almost a year and a half, monthly, if not bi-weekly at times, for conference calls to work through the tech platforms and stack. “It was a perfect storm with the entrepreneurial spirit of the franchisee, the entrepreneurial spirit of a large corporation like Taco Bell, and, clearly, the outside thinking of what Mike and Josh [Hanson, co-founder of Vertical Works and CEO of WORKSHOP], brought to this whole idea,” Engler says. “And it came across through a friendship.”
Engler says he’s been asked why Defy wasn’t conceptualized before by other brands. His answer: It was hiding in plain sight. “But part of the problem is that you only know what you know,” Engler says. “And these guys, they didn’t know what rules they could or could not break.”
A view into the (not-so-distant) future
Grams says COVID forced all brands to ask themselves where the consumer was going. Everyone started to experience the emergence of digital and delivery. The notion digital could mix a large percentage of transactions was no longer a white whale for restaurants.
At Taco Bell, however, drive-thru was the furthest thing from a pandemic pivot. Before Glen Bell created the brand, he started Bell’s Drive-In and Taco Tia in the San Bernardino, California, area. “We believe we excel at drive-thru and do a really good job,” Grams says. “The challenge for us is how are you going to disrupt yourself, take digital business, and convert it into a drive-thru when the drive-thru is already a pretty good experience that’s painless to the consumer.”
As you might imagine, Grams, who has been with the brand for three decades, sees a lot of prototypes show up on his desk. Taco Bell’s “Go Mobile” was unveiled in August 2020 as a smaller (1,325 square feet versus the typical 2,500) model with a dual drive-thru, smart kitchen technology, “bellhop” in-line order takers, curbside, and, overall, a synchronized digital experience centered around streamlining points. Defy fits into that envisioned universe, but amplified.
What’s also unique about Defy, especially in a COVID era where “restaurant of the future” prototypes raced across the table like ants, is that the finished product actually looks like the rendering. Even better, Grams says. “When you go there and see the lanes full of cars, everybody with their cameras out taking pictures of the experience, you really get that you might be onto something here,” he says. “There’s a lot to learn for us to carry forward.”
Barring a pandemic, Grams says, he would have greeted the idea with trepidation. “I would have said, ‘I’ve seen these pictures before.' Somewhere in the world, in Australia, they’re going to try to do one,” he says.
Yet this was a different arena. With fast food and drive-thru, brands are searching for outlets to incorporate digital into the business. And to do so beyond just ordering; it’s as much a battleground of integration as one to provide convenience.
Defy is, at its core, contactless drive-thru at its apex. The Washington Post described it as the “MP3 that out-convenienced the CD, which had out-convenienced the cassette.”