Taco Bell is preparing to roll out mobile ordering nationwide later this year, a move that will likely fuel a trend expected to shake up the quick-service world.

The Irvine, Calif.-based quick-service chain began developing an app that allows guests to order ahead using smartphones about two and a half years ago, and recently has conducted a controlled beta test in five units in Orange County. Within a few weeks, the test will be opened up to select consumers to work out operational challenges, but company officials expect to roll out the platform later this year.

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Restaurant chains have been talking about mobile ordering for years but faced a chicken-and-egg dilemma: They were hesitant to invest in a mobile platform before it was clear whether consumers were ready to order and pay for food using their phones. This year, it appears that they believe consumers are ready, as the use of mobile ordering has jumped to the fast track at a number of national chains.

McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A are reportedly testing a mobile app, and Smashburger has indicated mobile ordering is on deck for rollout this year. Jersey Mike’s unveiled a mobile app in November that offers ordering and other services.

Tack Bell's mobile ordering app allows users to customize their orders. Starbucks’ chief executive Howard Schultz recently said he is focusing his energy on the development of mobile and digital initiatives, including mobile ordering. Starbucks leads the industry in use of mobile payment.

Officials at Chipotle Mexican Grill, which has offered mobile ordering since 2009, said last week they plan to invest $10 million to further develop its mobile platform, including adding mobile payment.

National pizza chains, including Papa John’s, Domino’s and Taco Bell sister-brand Pizza Hut, have also proven consumer acceptance of online and mobile ordering.

Taco Bell officials believe its primary demographic of young Millennials, in particular, will welcome what the chain promises will be a seamless integration of technology that is already central to their smartphone-focused lives. “For these kids, it’s not whether you have a smartphone; it’s which smartphone do you have,” said Jeff Jenkins, mobile lead for Taco Bell.

According to recent National Restaurant Association research, 74 percent of consumers aged 18 to 34 say they would order takeout/delivery on a mobile device, if it were available. Among all ages, two in five consumers said they use smartphones to find restaurants or get directions, and capturing those users alone would be a tremendous opportunity, said Jenkins.

“Mobile is the biggest shift in QSR since the drive thru,” said Jenkins.

“If you can get 10 million people to download your app, you’re putting a portal to Taco Bell in 10 million pockets.”

Customizing the mobile experience

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In the spirit of its marketing theme “Live Más,” Taco Bell opted to develop its own system specific to the brand instead of using one of a growing number of “off-the-shelf solutions,” which could’ve been a quicker way to bring mobile ordering to fruition, Jenkins noted.

“Living Más is all about doing things differently,” he said. “One brand will be extraordinary, while everyone else is ordinary. We asked, ‘How do we become extraordinary?’”

On a visit to a Taco Bell test unit last week, Jenkins demonstrated how the new app works. Rather than offering a static interface that looks the same every time the app is opened, Taco Bell’s app offers a message that varies, depending on the time of day. Guests might be greeted with a “Hey hungry human, ready to get your lunch on?” message around midday, for example, or another tailored to dinner or late-night snacks.

Taco Bell's app also provides calorie information to users.“It’s built on the moment of now,” which is largely how young people live, said Jenkins.

The app opens first to the menu, but then immediately allows guests to find their closest Taco Bell, so pricing specific to that location appears, as well as hours and directions.

Customers can customize menu selections, and the app offers “smart upsell” opportunities, suggesting a drink or dessert, for example, if the user hasn’t ordered one. Users can save their favorite orders, customized to their liking, for next time.

Guests can load Taco Bell gift cards or use their credit cards to pay. The order goes directly to the restaurant’s POS system and appears on the kitchen display system specifically as a mobile order.

To ensure that the food is prepared hot when the guest arrives, the system uses a GPS locator to recognize when the person placing the order is near, giving the kitchen a signal to fire the order.

The guest then has the option of in-store pick up or using the drive thru — but they don’t have to make that decision until they arrive at the restaurant. If the drive thru line is long, for example, they can tap “in-store” pickup and go inside. Jenkins said a separate pick up window for mobile orders will be available to allow those guests to avoid the line.

If using the drive thru, guests simply stop at the call box and announce their arrival by name — “Mobile order for John” — cueing the kitchen to prepare the meal and have it ready at the pick up window.

Workers will be challenged to maintain speed of service during peak hours, when restaurants are receiving a steady flow of mobile orders at the same time guests are lined up at the counter. However, Jenkins contends that mobile ordering will help eliminate some of the drag caused by consumers with “menu board anxiety,” as well as improving accuracy. When ordering by smartphone, for example, guests can take their time deciding whether to add sour cream or remove the cheese without holding up the line. “It’s really more about convenience and customization,” he noted.

Greg Fancher, Taco Bell’s chief information officer, said the chain sees mobile as a platform on which to build. “We’re looking at scale and flexibility,” he said. “We’re focused on mobile now, but preparing for what happens next,” including creating a similar system specifically for tablets or ordering on a desktop device.

Ties to a loyalty program may also be a future step, said Jenkins. “Loyalty is a really interesting opportunity for QSR,” he said. “We’re trying to bring something to life.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout