Jun 7, 2022 - Food and Drink

The Taco Bell of the future comes to Twin Cities

A new Taco Bell with four drive thru lanes
The new Taco Bell Defy in Brooklyn Park. Photo: Nick Halter/Axios

The pandemic has sped up the evolution of fast food, and the newest Taco Bell in the Twin Cities is a peek into the future of the industry.

Driving the news: Local franchisee Border Foods opens the first-ever "Defy" restaurant today in Brooklyn Park.

How it works: The kitchen was built above four drive-thru lanes and a takeout window. A locally engineered conveyor system lowers the food down to pickup kiosks.

  • It has double the food production lines of a typical Taco Bell so it can handle twice the volume. The goal: Orders fulfilled in two minutes.
  • Taco Bell already boasts the fastest drive-thru service in the business, according to the 2021 QSR magazine Drive Thru Study. The average total time on a fast-food line was 346 seconds; Taco Bell came in at 268 seconds.
A Border Foods exec loads up the food deliver system
Food is loaded into the lift system and dropped down. Photo: Nick Halter/Axios

Why it matters: This idea for this Taco Bell — where tacos drop down from the sky and there's no indoor dining — was dreamed up during the pandemic, according to Lee Engler, CEO of Border Foods, which owns 230 Taco Bells.

What he found: Engler said pre-pandemic, about 65% to 70% of sales at Border's Taco Bells came from the drive-thru line. Now that number is north of 90%, even as the pandemic wanes.

  • "We saw a lot of behavior change, and we don't see (the old way) coming back," he told Axios during a tour Monday.

The intrigue : Fast food restaurants everywhere are trying to figure out how to deal with more drive-thru traffic as well as the explosion of food delivery services like UberEats and Grubhub.

  • Engler enlisted the services of Minneapolis-based Vertical Works Inc. to design the lift system.
  • Having the kitchen above allows for four food points, instead of the one or two in a traditional drive-thru restaurants.
  • That allows Taco Bell to dedicate three lanes to food delivery drivers as well as those who order on their phones in advance, clearing up the traditional drive-thru lane for old-fashioned customers. There's also a contactless counter service inside.

What's ahead: Engler said Border Foods is already working up plans for new "Defy" locations, but that's tricky because not every city is as supportive of drive-thrus like Brooklyn Park was.

  • While this one doesn't have a dining room, future locations might, he said.
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