Want to Grab Your Food Pickup Order From a Locker? Taco Bell Bets You Do.

A taco bell in Times Square is intended to relieve employees by having customers order either online or via electronic kiosks in the restaurant, thus eliminating the traditional experience of being a cashier as a middleman.

The business is a Taco Bell Cantina, part of the company’s more upscale, open kitchen chain, and has been open since mid-April. Customers who order online pick up their groceries from locked cubes, which they can access via a separate entrance without having to enter the main restaurant. The cubbies keep the food warm and sound the alarm if it has been sitting too long.

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People who place their orders via the 10 digital kiosks at the entrance to the restaurant will pick up their food in a designated area in the rear area.

The site has 70 employees and four production lines to handle the volume of orders from visitors to Times Square, compared to about 35 employees and two production lines for a regular Taco Bell.

The concept dates back to before the coronavirus pandemic – it took about two years to develop – but it meets new consumer expectations for a faster experience with less human interaction and less indoor time, industry experts say.

“It’s about that speed, convenience, and ease – creating a seamless consumer experience,” said Noam Dorros, director analyst at Gartner Inc., a research firm.

The Times Square store is the first Taco Bell location in the US to highlight digital ordering in this way. The experience of removing groceries from a locked box is reminiscent of self-service machines that were ubiquitous in New York for decades before they were no longer in use. The new store still has a front desk clerk to make sure customers are old enough to drink alcohol, a staple of many Taco Bell cantinas.

Taco Bell opened a similar store in London last year, but without the Cubbies and with fewer kiosks.

Moving away from the traditional cash register experience is one of the many tactics restaurants are using to try to attract employees in a tough job market as customers start eating out again amid the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, said Nabeel Alamgir, managing director and co- Employee Founder of Lunchbox Technologies Inc., a startup that specializes in building online ordering systems.

Restaurants are experimenting with QR codes, building kits for home meals, and reaching customers through third-party apps, kiosks, and delivery services. Fast food companies like Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.

and Del Taco restaurants Inc.

test drive-through locations for online pickup and purchase orders from Taco Bell’s parent company, Yum Brands Inc.,

recently acquired a startup to take orders via text.

“What we did in Times Square is not the finish line for us,” said Mike Grams, Taco Bell’s global chief operating officer. “It will take more time … and this constant advancement of innovation around the restaurant experience that is becoming so important.”

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Taco Bell’s Cubby system is based on similar concepts tried by other chains, both for success and failure. Companies like Sweetgreen Inc. and Cava Group Inc. have special areas where customers can pick up their groceries.

Eatsa, a restaurant chain that served quinoa-based dishes, tried a cubby-only pickup model but closed a handful of locations and has been offering technology to other restaurants under the Brightloom name since 2019.

New customer experiences still require employees to guide, support, and reassure customers if something goes wrong, according to experts. Many consumers got used to new digital experiences such as online purchases and in-store pickups during the pandemic, but businesses still have more to do.

“We need to start engaging with customers in ways that respect their real life,” said Jeannie Walters, executive director of Experience Investigators, a customer experience consultancy.

Write to Ann-Marie Alcántara at [email protected]

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