Are four drive-thru lanes better than two?

Source: Workshop LLC; SRa
Aug 16, 2021

Taco Bell last week introduced a new two-story concept, Taco Bell Defy. The design features four drive-thru lanes on the ground level and houses the kitchen on the second level where orders are prepared to send below for pickup.

Three lanes are dedicated to mobile or delivery order pickups, enabling a quick “skip the line” promise for customers ordering via the Taco Bell app and third-party delivery services. One traditional lane supports on-site ordering and pickup.

Mobile customers arriving in cars scan their order via a QR code at digital check-in screens. They then pull forward to the pickup area and their food is delivered via a contactless proprietary lift system from the elevated food-prep area. Two-way audio and video technology lets customers interact directly with the food-prep team above in real time.

The 3,000 square-foot model promises to be equal to or smaller than existing store footprints, but serves even more customers to be the “fastest way ever to get Taco Bell.”

The Defy concept doubles down on the approach of the Taco Bell Go Mobile concept, which was launched last August and features two drive-thru lanes, one prioritized for mobile orders as well as curbside pickup with help from a concierge team of “Bellhops.”

Minneapolis in 2019 became the largest city to ban the construction of new restaurant drive-thrus due to the negatives of idling cars and traffic. The need for contactless to-go options, however, has accelerated drive-thru purchases across the country. At McDonald’s, drive-thru already represented 70 percent of sales before the pandemic and that increased to nearly 90 percent early on during the outbreak.

Many QSRs are experimenting with drive-thru only establishments, walk-up windows and other ways to speed pick-up. Panera Bread announced in late May a restaurant design that includes a double drive-thru, with one lane dedicated to mobile pickup.

Last September, Burger King unveiled two new “Restaurant of Tomorrow” designs that include triple drive-thru lanes, as well as dedicated parking spots and lockers for mobile orders. Similar to Taco Bell Defy, one design features “a suspended kitchen and dining room above the drive-thru lanes configured to reduce the building footprint, making it ideal for urban driving cities.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is the Taco Bell Defy concept likely a winner? How do you see QSR designs evolving to meet the needs of customers in the next few years?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"The new Taco Bell concept my be the way of the future for many QSR chains."
"This is a winning design, but don’t forget that not everyone always wants to just grab their food and go."
"The Taco Bell Defy concept takes it a step further. The question will be, can they take it from an interesting concept to reality?"

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24 Comments on "Are four drive-thru lanes better than two?"

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Jenn McMillen

People have embraced curbside pickup wholeheartedly. This is the next iteration where curbside meets contactless meets convenience. As we are supposed to meet customers where they are, expect more advancements like these.

Zel Bianco

In markets where the only option is drive up or drive thru, I think it is a winner. Less idling, less wait, and less contact are all good benefits of this concept. Will the technology deliver as promised is the big question. Incorrect orders and the like will no doubt put a speed bump on the way to fast and accurate service levels.

Ben Ball

This makes sense on so many levels (pun intended). Less space, no parking lot or street backups, and more throughput. All without losing the ability to interact with a human if you need to add a burrito. This concept (or one of the several others revealed by Taco Bell last week) is a winner for many markets — especially urban markets.

Neil Saunders

Drive thru has become more popular during the pandemic. Some of this shift is permanent and restaurants will need to adapt to cope with the higher volume, especially increasing the throughput of ordering and collection lanes. This isn’t just about improving the customer experience, it’s also about managing vehicle traffic better because when that gets backed up it causes issues for other tenants in shopping destinations. I know quite a few locations, especially with Chick-fil-A stores, where this has become a real problem.

David Naumann

The new Taco Bell drive-thru only concept is a clever way to adapt to new customer preferences. The COVID-19 pandemic forced fast food consumers to rely on drive-thru only service and now it has become a habit for most people. Other chains like Chick-fil-A have realized that drive-thru is the most effective and profitable way to maximize the number of customers serviced by a location. The new Taco Bell concept my be the way of the future for many QSR chains.

Bob Phibbs

This design of a suspended kitchen and four drive-thru lanes was pioneered by a chef on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach 20+ years ago – not far from Taco Bell’s headquarters. Egress and ingress were horrible and the site was too far back – people also weren’t ready for THAT much drive-thru. The pre~pandemic success of Chik-fil-A’s double drive-thrus paved the way for this smart concept. Not applicable everywhere but a smart design for the right area.

Jennifer Bartashus

Taco Bell is often at the forefront of trying new formats, and this is no exception. The design is not only consumer friendly, it makes practical use of smaller lots, which could give the company the ability to add units in new locations that previously didn’t make sense.

Christine Russo

QSRs remain at the forefront of innovation and even experimentation in omnichannel retail. Is it a winner? Maybe. We will find out. And I applaud them for trying it and letting the faults drive future strategies. It sure beats what some other retailers do which is making teeny incremental changes while the business stagnates or worse.

Gary Sankary

This is brilliant. Great design to enable frictionless commerce for their customers. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of these sorts of designs going forward. In my area, most of the “good” QSRs have been struggling to effectively manage the demand for drive-thru. Almost everyone has a chokepoint in the payment and fulfillment portion of the process due to having one lane. This will go a long way to alleviating that issue. Kudos to Taco Bell.

Steve Montgomery

Customers have demonstrated that they prefer the drive-thru lane to entering a QSR to order their meal(s) and either eating in or taking it back to their car and taking it home or wherever they are going. The questions for the QSR industry is how to best serve their drive-thru customers. We have seen drive-thru lanes expand for one to two, etc.

The Taco Bell Defy concept takes it a step further. The question will be, can they take it from an interesting concept to reality? Concepts always work conceptually but often find the transition to reality to be harder and take longer than anticipated. One thing that can be guaranteed is that if it works, other QSRs will follow.

Kevin Graff

Great use of limited land space. Great design that stands out above the crowd (of course). This is a winning design, but don’t forget that not everyone always wants to just grab their food and go. Sitting with friends/family in a restaurant to share a meal is part of our social DNA. There will always be a place for more traditional sit-down restaurants. This new Taco Bell Defy concept certainly has a place — just not the whole playground.

Lee Peterson

Dark stores/restaurants are winners. Witness Wendy’s 700 unit deal with REEF. That’s a big move NOT based on a whim; the numbers had to have been there. All our research has been telling us that consumers are fine with dark (pickup and delivery only) stores for some time now. The pandemic just sped things up.

Re: this design (which by the way will open “sometime in 2022”), it looks like a nice rendering, but their operations people have to be having cows over it. Nice PR, but it remains to be seen if two story QSRs can stand up to the needed operational speed, logistics and, oh yeah, cost, that they’ve historically been so focused on.

Melissa Minkow

The part I think is smartest about this is that there’s “skip the line” privilege for app orders. New service offerings are a brilliant way to incentivize app usage, so the strategy they’ve built around this new design very much supports omnichannel as a whole.

Jeff Weidauer

Getting out of the car and going inside is so 2000s. QSRs have long done most of their business via the drive-thru. This is a logical evolution.

Shep Hyken

My first thought is, “That’s a lot of real estate.” Then I think about the speed and efficiency this will create in a busy store. And then there is the advantage of using an app or similar technology for advance orders, mobile ordering, etc. That said, I do marvel at how Chick-fil-A recognizes how busy they are and sends someone out to take orders and keep the line moving. So the question becomes this: How much does it cost to have the four lanes versus how much it costs to staff an extra team member or two during peak times? What’s the break-even point? The story continues to unfold.

Liz Crawford

The increased demand for contactless pick-up has driven all kinds of innovation – including augmenting the capacity of QSR drive-thrus. Our cars have truly become mobile dining rooms, this is an efficient way to respond to that need.

Perry Kramer

The new concept is a win. Their willingness to experiment and evolve is what is most important. I drove by a Dairy Queen this weekend that had over 20 cars in line and a person directing traffic in the parking lot. The consumer demand is clearly present. Those retailers that continue to improve the experience will win the business and at least the short-term loyalty. The ability to support multiple models that give a consistent level of service is key.

Raj B. Shroff

I think the concept is a winner for Taco Bell, it knows its base customer well. Kudos to them for always trying different tactics.

In the distant future, might they have a smaller kitchen fully automated with no staff? In that case, they could probably shrink the second floor down a bit. In the next few years, I think QSRs will be studying how to maximize production autonomy, using fewer humans, and buildings prototypes around that type of operation.

David Spear

I really like this type of business model iteration from Taco Bell. It certainly addresses many of the issues consumers face today and we’ll certainly see more of this. As a matter of fact, close to my home, one of the top-tier chicken QSRs had a highly successful single drive-thru and tore it down about two months ago to build a new four-lane drive-thru operation. Can’t wait to test it out!

Jeff Hall

This new concept will be embraced by Taco Bell’s customers, with a clear focus on speed, convenience and a frictionless (contactless) experience. I’d bet the next iteration will be along the lines of Wendy’s recent news with Reef: delivery-only ghost kitchens.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

A terrific concept that enhances the customer’s desire for convenient, speedy and contactless service. Like the EZ Pass concept this highlights the ability to quickly pick up mobile orders. When I drive through the EZ Pass lanes I always wonder why people wait in line to pay a toll. Same here. Plus additional lanes that expedite mobile orders address the traffic congestion that the pandemic has created by consumers wanting to avoid inside dining.

Joan Treistman

I think this is a winner for Taco Bell and its customers. The pandemic has fostered a new way of thinking about “fast” when it comes to “fast food.” Taco Bell has embraced the needs of its customers, real estate strategy and environmental concerns. Sounds good to me.

Harley Feldman

Since the number of people using drive-throughs has increased and will continue to remain strong, Taco Bell with Defy is planning on taking advantage of this trend. This first restaurant will teach them a lot about their thinking to handle the new paradigm in drive-through dining.

I see QSR designs evolving to have more quick pick-up access (either drive-up or in restaurant) and more ordering done by cell phone app. The apps will continue to evolve to give the customer more choices and options when ordering items.

1 year 1 month ago

Looks like pretty high build-out costs, not to mention high maintenance and upkeep costs for the equipment. The first time a drink tips over or leaks into the equipment that is carrying the food from level 2 down to the customer at level 1, I sense problems.

The set up reminds me of those old drive-through banks. Remember those? Where they never had more than 1-2 of the 4 lanes open since there was always some issue with the underground tube.

"The new Taco Bell concept my be the way of the future for many QSR chains."
"This is a winning design, but don’t forget that not everyone always wants to just grab their food and go."
"The Taco Bell Defy concept takes it a step further. The question will be, can they take it from an interesting concept to reality?"

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