April 09, 2021 at 09:02AM

The events of the last 13 months have presented the restaurant industry with unprecedented challenges, forcing them to reconsider everything from digital technologies to supply chain logistics to restaurant operations to their very architecture. Large restaurant chains have been uniquely positioned to see the effects of the pandemic across geographic locations, noting the different ways that consumers are interacting with their stores as the virus progresses. Consequently, many quick-service restaurant (QSR) giants have been redesigning their stores with these changing habits in mind. Most chains are focusing on drive-thru- and digital-ordering-centric designs.

Now, Taco Bell has announced its restaurant redesign plans, and the chain’s upcoming locations take a more nuanced approach to the future of dining. Unlike the 3 D’s of McDonald’s redesign—Digital, Delivery and Drive-Thru — Taco Bell’s 3 D’s take into account consumers’ pent-up demand for on-premises dining in the wake of the mass isolation of the last year. A “Dine-ins, Drive-Thrus, and Digital” approach will guide the chain’s restaurants going forward, as the company looks to open 10,000 locations over the course of the 2020s.

“[There] are two critical elements that will work together harmoniously across our Taco Bell brand,” Mike Grams, the chain’s president and global chief operating officer, told PYMNTS in a recent conversation. “It’s the idea of merging technology and mobile convenience with the human connection we all crave — especially when many of our fans are digitally native to begin with. By staying flexible in our restaurant formats and features, we’ll be able to continue creating unique environments and experiences for any customer.”

Leveraging Local Expertise

As part of the plan, some restaurants will serve as on-premises destinations — one recently opened location features a game zone, a full-service bar and an outdoor firepit. Some, such as last year’s Go Mobile locations, will center on digital integrations and off-premises options. To tailor each location to the needs of the surrounding area, the company looks to its franchisees to “leverage their local market insights and trade areas of expertise” and determine which restaurant design would work best.

As Grams put it, “we’re working closely with our franchisees to think leaps ahead of others in order to offer various restaurant formats that facilitate the desired dining experience for every individual.”

The chain will also work with its franchisees to stay in tune with the moment-to-moment needs of consumers, as unpredictable events such as those of the recent past pose new challenges and create new opportunities.

“There are many factors that come into play when planning for each and every new build and remodel,” said Grams. “The current needs of our guests will continue to evolve, as will technology — often rapidly and unexpectedly.”

A Kiosk-Centric Store In The Heart Of NYC

Typically, restaurant locations in Times Square are bigger and brighter than those in other parts of the country. Taco Bell’s new location in the area however will be a kiosk-centric store that offers, per the company’s news release, a “completely digital yet in-person experience.”

“I can’t tell you too much just yet,” Grams told PYMNTS. “What I can say is that our newest Times Square location is slated to open this spring and it will be a Taco Bell corporate-owned store. The behaviors and consumer needs that we’ve seen develop during the pandemic are sure to stick around, so we have no plans of slowing down with technology-forward restaurants.”

As the chain continues to experiment with less-traditional store designs, Grams also alluded to “another great new concept” developed “in partnership with our franchisee Border Foods,” a company that operates 200 locations with over 5,000 employees. He added, “in the coming months, you’ll see how they’re creatively solving for drive-thru bottleneck issues with a new restaurant in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.”

Predicting The ‘Restaurant Of The Future’

“Right now, everyone in our industry is talking about the drive-thru as the cornerstone of the ‘restaurant of the future,’” noted Grams. “… At Taco Bell … the drive-thru experience has long been one of our strengths; we even adapted our operations during COVID-19 in such ways that allowed us to increase our drive-thru speed to become one of the fastest in the industry.”

Across the industry, he noted, major QSR chains have been turning to technological innovations to streamline operations. In addition to doing this, Taco Bell looks to create immersive experiences that go beyond providing efficiency and convenience.

“We’re looking more holistically to a multitude of different concepts,” said Grams, “pushing boundaries and tapping into the power of franchisees’ entrepreneurial spirits to create restaurants that are truly special.”

These locations will be especially in demand in the near future, as newly vaccinated consumers seek out in-person experiences to provide the sense of connection that was missing for so many during the height of the pandemic.

“We’re … seeing promising signs for a future where we can again gather to eat with friends and family,” said Grams. “I think that’s something we can all look forward to.”

Taco Bell President: ‘Restaurants Of The Future’ Will Tap Targeted Experiences …

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