Taco Bell is adding 1,000 drive-thru 'bellhops' as chain tweaks traditional and Cantina stores for a post pandemic world

Taco Bell CantinaTaco BellA Cantina, which typically is focused on dine-in service, has added a drive-thru.
  • Three Taco Bell stores have been modified into the chain’s new small-format Go Mobile design.
  • The chain says 1,000 ‘bellhops’ with iPads will take orders at drive-thru lanes throughout the US.
  • A Cantina store, originally geared for dine-in, has added a drive-thru lane due to the pandemic.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

More than a year after proposing a plan to roll out dine-in-focused lifestyle stores, Taco Bell is tweaking its store development plans.

The Irvine, California-based fast-food chain said Tuesday that its next 1,000 restaurants will be modernized with features that reflect growing consumer demand for convenient, contactless ordering, a trend accelerated during the pandemic. New format stores will feature order-taking bellhops at the drive-thru and kiosk-only ordering. Modifications are also being made to the chain’s dine-in-focused Cantina concept.

Some of these changes were introduced last summer when Taco Bell introduced its new “Go Mobile” restaurant format with dual drive-thru lanes. One lane would be dedicated to traditional drive-thru orders, while the other would be designed for the pickup of mobile orders – similar to Chipotle Mexican Grill’s Chipotlanes.

On Tuesday, the chain said those plans are starting to gel.

Three stores in Texas and Oklahoma have been modified to adopt the Go Mobile format, while a Taco Bell Cantina in Northern California has added a drive-thru lane. The latter represents a significant about-face for the Cantina concept, originally developed to accommodate dine-in traffic in densely populated urban cities like Chicago, Las Vegas, London, and New York.

Read more: How Taco Bell, Burger King, and Chipotle are pushing diners away from DoorDash and Uber Eats and reclaiming customer data

But, the Yum Brands division said Tuesday that the “prioritization of drive-thru service during the pandemic” triggered the adoption of a drive-thru at the Cantina concept in Danville, California. The experiential concept still features dine-in elements such as an outdoor fire pit, a game area, and a full bar which will serve diners when it is safe to do so, the chain said.

Mike Grams, Taco Bell’s global chief operating officer, said the chain’s restaurant portfolio is rapidly evolving as it strikes “a crucial balance between being technology-forward and social-oriented.”

“Even amid the challenging pandemic, we are continuing to grow due in large part to the strength in our franchise partnerships as well as the flexible formats we offer,” Grams said in a statement.

The chain said it will continue to build destination Cantina restaurants, but at the same time, it will prioritize growing restaurants that “maximize efficiency for on-the-go customers” like the Go Mobile restaurants.

Before the pandemic, 3% of Taco Bell sales came from digital orders. Now, that number has surged to about 20%. That’s forced the chain to rethink store designs.

Taco Bell Go MobileTaco BellThree s in Oklahoma and Texas have added dual drive-thru lanes as part of the new Go Mobile format.

The chain, which has about 7,400 locations, plans to remodel or build an additional 30 stores into the Go Mobile model by the end of the year. New stores will have smaller dining rooms and be about 1,325 square feet. That’s more than 1,000-square feet smaller than a standard Taco Bell restaurant.

Read more: Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol on fight for profits between the chain and delivery operators like DoorDash: ‘Our margins are just as important as their margins.’

A key feature of the Go Mobile concept, order-taking bellhops at the drive-thru, will also be extended to traditional stores to help improve drive-thru wait times, the chain said.

Consumers will start to see about 1,000 of these “concierge service of team members” taking orders with iPads at restaurants across the US by the summer. Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out Burger also station employees at the drive-thru to take orders with tablets.

Taco Bell said it is also opening a “kiosk-focused” restaurant in Manhattan that is designed for a completely digital in-person experience. The chain did not provide further details.

Also coming soon is a new format store by Taco Bell franchisee Lee Engler, CEO of Border Foods. He plans to unveil “an industry-defying restaurant” in the coming months, Taco Bell said.

Taco Bell and Engler did not provide any further details, only stating that the new concept is expected to address the bottleneck at drive-thru windows.

“As great as the drive-thru is, a fundamental flaw is bottleneck at the windows,” Engler said in a statement. “Our team has set out to creatively solve for that like no one else has done before, and we’re thrilled by positive early responses to our one-of-a-kind concept coming to Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.”

According to Thrillist, city documents reveal that Taco Bell is looking to build an experimental store with a “windowless building design that will cater only to takeout orders” from four drive-thru lanes fulfilling orders from two separate kitchens.

Data shows that Taco Bell’s focus on digital takeout solutions is a smart move.

According to a J.D. Power Pulse Survey conducted in January of 2021, retail and restaurant consumers are still gravitating towards curbside and home delivery even as business restrictions ease across the US. Half of the consumers surveyed said they plan to continue using curbside pickup and home delivery services. And, 21% said they expected “to actually increase their use of these services,” the survey states.

While demand for delivery rose substantially during the pandemic, takeout and drive-thru orders are the busiest channels for fast-food chains. According to recent data by The NPD Group, carryout represented 45.8% of total orders. Drive-thru is 43.5% and delivery is 10.7%.

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