Restaurants pushing digital orders in the labor shortage could mean diners asking for more food because they don’t feel judged by servers, an expert says

Restaurant server US
Digital ordering could lead to customers placing bigger orders – and restaurants getting more profits.

  • Diners feel less embarrassed asking for bigger meals when ordering digitally, an expert told the WSJ.
  • Restaurants have turned to apps or QR codes for ordering during the pandemic and the US labor shortage.
  • “People order more and the tables turn over faster, because they can get their orders and they can get their bills sooner,” Deepthi Prakash said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Restaurants are rolling out ways for customers to order digitally, which could lead to diners placing bigger orders because they can hide their embarrassment from servers, one expert has said.

When customers order digitally, rather than through a server, they’re more likely to choose the food they really want, Deepthi Prakash, global director of product and marketing at advertising agency TBWA Worldwide, told The Wall Street Journal.

This is because they don’t have to worry about servers judging them, she said.

“People order more and the tables turn over faster, because they can get their orders and they can get their bills sooner,” Prakash, who previously worked as a restaurant experience design consultant, told the publication.

This could therefore create bigger profits for restaurants.

Read more: These 9 food tech startups are capitalizing on the labor crunch with tools that help franchisees hire or automate the restaurant workforce

During the pandemic, restaurants have been pushing dine-in customers to order using apps or QR codes printed on menus or glued on tables. Starbucks is encouraging customers to order in advance on their phones for drinks-to-go, while Taco Bell is pushing digital kiosks and is even rolling out a new restaurant format based on mobile ordering.

Close-up shot of a tabletop sign holder with a sign reading "Parada, New Peru" with a QR code visible at the Parada Kitchen Peruvian Restaurant in Walnut Creek, California, February, 2021
Restaurants have been pushing customers to order using apps, QR codes, and kiosks during the pandemic.

As mobile and drive-thru sales soared during the pandemic, Starbucks customers placed fewer orders – but they were more expensive, Insider’s Mary Meisenzahl reported. This is down to a mix of customers placing bigger orders and getting more modifications.

“I feel like there’s an aspect of shame when you’re standing in front of a register, you have to look at a person and tell them all the things you want in your drink,” a former Los Angeles Starbucks barista told Insider.

Starbucks baristas said that customers often ask for weirder and more complicated drinks when they order via its app. This includes bizarre TikTok-inspired drinks or beverages with excessive modifications, such as an iced latte with 12 shots of coffee and five shots of hazelnut syrup.

Digital ordering could help keep revenues up during the labor shortage

Starbucks was one of the first restaurants to widely roll out mobile ordering.

“There’s nothing else like it,” David Bagley, managing director at Carls Marks Advisors, told Insider. “They’re doing something that really every other restaurant should have done years ago”

Many chains are lagging behind Starbucks on mobile ordering, but are finding other ways to drive digital orders.

Even before the pandemic, rising wages in the restaurant industry meant that chains like McDonald’s had been turning to kiosk ordering to keep down staff costs, Andrew Lapin, a lawyer specializing in retail at Robbins, Salomon, and Patt, told Insider.

And restaurants are currently scrambling to find workers amid a huge labor shortage across the US, which could make digital ways of ordering, like through apps, kiosks, and QR codes, even more attractive.

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Starbucks workers say the chain’s mobile ordering is out of control – leading to in-store delays, rude customers, and the pressure to make TikTok-inspired drinks

A Starbucks employee wears a face shield and mask as she makes a coffee in Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on May 12, 2020.
Customers are increasingly asking for heavily modified drinks.

  • Starbucks workers say the chain is letting too many customers place orders on its app.
  • They say some stores don’t have the capacity to keep up with demand.
  • Starbucks also allows unlimited drink modifications via its app, which staff say they’re sick of.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As well as racing to bring down drive-thru times and navigating maskless customers, Starbucks workers are facing another challenge: mobile orders.

Customers have turned to the Starbucks app during the pandemic because it allows them to order in advance and without any face-to-face interaction. Some baristas say this has left them swamped with mobile orders, which now make up more than a quarter of its US transactions.

“The whole mobile order system is really bad,” Nat El-Hai, a former Beverly Hills Starbucks barista, told Insider.

Read more: These 9 food tech startups are capitalizing on the labor crunch with tools that help franchisees hire or automate the restaurant workforce

Staff told Insider that the chain is letting too many customers place orders on its app and it doesn’t have enough staff demand, causing delays for in-store customers.

A Starbucks spokesperson told Insider that this was “not illustrative of the customer and partner experience in a majority of our stores.”

Mobile orders start trickling through as soon as her North Carolina store opens at 5 a.m., barista Sarah Ann Austin said. One former New York barista said most of their store’s sales were mobile orders, and that they could get more than seven a minute during busy times.

El-Hai said her store would often be swamped with walk-in and drive-thru customers and was “chronically understaffed.” She said staff were told they couldn’t turn mobile ordering off, however.

A former barista from Long Beach, California, said that before the pandemic when the store was too busy, management sometimes used to turn off the point-of-sale system used for mobile ordering and pretend that the server was down.

Customers expect rapid service and heavily modified drinks

Customers get an estimated collection time when they order on the app. A Starbucks spokesperson told Insider that this helped to stagger arrivals based on how long drinks take to make.

But El-Hai and Austin said that many customers placed their app orders on their way to the store and didn’t give enough time for staff to prepare their drinks. They were angry if they had to wait, the barista said. Some customers even placed orders on the app after arriving at the store, El-Hai said.

On the other hand, some customers were very late to collect their orders, but would “get mad” if the baristas had thrown their drinks away, El-Hai said. A former Los Angeles barista said staff sometimes had to remake drinks if they were cold or had melted by the time customers arrived.

At times, the app sometimes didn’t update when ingredients ran out in the store, meaning people would order drinks that couldn’t be made, El-Hai said. Mobile-order refunds could only be carried out on the app, which could be slow, “and people get really upset with you,” El-Hai said.

“It’s not set up the way it needs to be,” Stephanie, a barista in British Columbia, Canada, said. She told Insider that sometimes the app didn’t reflect when the chain’s collectable coffee cups were out of stock.

The Starbucks spokesperson said: “The app shows what is available in each location and the stores turn it on and off. It is accurate and it says what it has available.”

The workers also said that customers were taking advantage of the unlimited modifications available through mobile ordering. One shift supervisor in Maryland said some customers added modifications “just because they’re there.”

They added: “People can make drink combinations that not only aren’t intuitive but also just don’t make sense.”

El-Hai shared a photo with Insider of a drink she had made for a mobile order customer who had asked for 12 shots of coffee, alongside five shots of hazelnut syrup, in an iced latte.

They added that staff were sick of making so-called “TikTok” drinks, which are inspired by viral trends and not limited to mobile orders.

Other workers told Insider that these drinks slowed down drive-thru times and made customers angry when they weren’t made perfectly. They said that the company should cut down the number of modifications allowed.

Do you work at Starbucks? Got a story to share? Email this reporter at gdean@insider.com.

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I tried Taco Bell and Chipotle’s drive-thrus, and they’re two totally different takes on quick service Mexican food

taco bell drive thru
A Taco Bell employee delivers an order to a customer at the drive-up window of the restaurant on March 31, 2020.

  • I visited Taco Bell and Chipotle to compare their drive-thrus.
  • Though both sell Mexican food, they have totally different price points and wait times.
  • Taco Bell has a classic drive-thru setup, while Chipotle’s emphasizes mobile orders.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Drive-thrus have become more important than ever for fast food and fast casual restaurants because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Taco Bell

Fast-food chains have invested in drive-thru technology over the last few years, especially as customers showed that they prefer drive-thrus to other ways of ordering.

Chipotlane

I visited Taco Bell and Chipotle to see two sides of the very different Mexican-American food drive-thru experience.

taco bell

First up, Taco Bell has a classic drive-thru in the style of McDonald’s and other seasoned chains with a line, menu board, and windows for payment and getting food.

Taco Bell drive thru

Taco Bell’s app is easy to use, with the menu broken down into easily-understood categories. It is also searchable.

Taco Bell mobile ordering app

It also makes it easy to customize every item on the menu, which is a key part of the chain’s appeal.

Taco Bell menu app customization options

Vegetarians tend to like Taco Bell for the many meatless and vegan options, and the app smartly highlights those items.

Taco Bell mobile ordering app

Taco Bell has prioritized its drive-thrus over the past year and made some major changes as a result.

Taco Bell drive thru

To some customers’ dismay, last year the chain cut over a dozen items, including potatoes, to shorten wait times.

taco bell

Source: Insider

The cuts paid off – in the third quarter of 2020, Taco Bell served 30 million more customers than in all of 2019, and each order was completed 17 seconds faster.

Taco Bell drive thru

Source: Insider

I saw those changes firsthand during my Taco Bell visit. Though the line was at least ten cars long, I gave the name for my mobile order at the speaker and was holding my food in about five minutes.

Taco Bell drive thru

The chain has plans to further improve drive-thrus, with double lanes for mobile orders and bellhops to take orders on iPads. Both of these steps resemble Chick-fil-A’s setup and have been implemented at chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Taco Bell Go Mobile
Three Taco Bells in Oklahoma and Texas have added dual drive-thru lanes as part of the new Go Mobile format.

Source: Insider

Part of Taco Bell’s speed and efficiency is likely due to its embrace of drive-thrus and mobile orders.

Taco Bell drive thru

Every Taco Bell has two food assembly lines, one for the drive-thru and one for the inside counter.

Taco Bell drive thru

Source: NBC

Trimming down menus help workers keep both lines moving faster.

Taco Bell drive thru

Taco Bell doesn’t make many claims about nutrition or authenticity, but the drive-thru experience is reliably fast and delicious.

Taco Bell drive thru

I also tried out Chipotle’s “Chipotlane” drive-thru to compare.

Chipotle drive-thru

At Chipotle, I also ordered through the app, though this time I didn’t have a choice. Chipotlanes exclusively serve mobile orders.

Chipotle app mobile ordering

The app makes it easy to find a restaurant to order from, and it helpfully displays which ones are Chipotlanes.

Chipotle app mobile ordering

Chipotle has been working on Chipotlanes for a few years, although they’re getting more investment thanks to the pandemic.

Chipotle drive-thru

By early 2019, Chipotle had 10 US Chipotlanes, and executives told Insider that they planned to open dozens more, while also investing in digital ordering.

Chipotle drive-thru

Source: Insider

Chipotle’s digital sales exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, making up more than half of sales in 2020. For Chipotle, more so than for other brands, digital and drive-thru sales are completely tied together, because that’s the only way to order at a Chipotlane.

Chipotle drive-thru

Source: Insider

The app makes it easy to choose a dish and chose your protein, rice, and other options in the same order that you would inside the store.

Chipotle app mobile ordering

After ordering, you select a window of when to pick up your food. The windows are at least 20 minutes out in my experience.

Chipotle
Chipotle app.

The Chipotlane has no speaker or alternate windows. You just drive up to the single window and give the name associated with your order.

Chipotle drive-thru

If you go to the window too early, you might be told to come back in five minutes, which was what happened to me.

Chipotlane
Chipotlane.

Like Taco Bell, Chipotle works on an assembly line model, where customers move down the line of ingredients to choose what they want in a burrito or bowl. Chipotle locations also run a second assembly line behind the scenes dubbed the “digital make line.”

Chipotle

Source: Insider

Unlike Taco Bell, though, speed does not seem to be the top priority at Chipotle.

Chipotle Burrito

My food was good, and it was ready at the time the app said it would be.

Chipotle drive-thru

The different ordering styles show how Chipotle and Taco Bell are differentiating themselves in the drive-thru Mexican food space.

Chipotle Burrito

You can go into nearly any Taco Bell and leave with a combination of dozens of different menu items in under ten minutes. It doesn’t take planning ahead or much money – it’s an easy lunch or dinner most people can agree on.

Taco Bell

At Chipotle, on the other hand, it’s more of a commitment. A Chipotle order typically means 10 to 20 minutes spent in line, or a mobile order at least 20 minutes ahead of time.

Chipotle

Even in the drive-thru, Chipotle seems to see itself as a more upscale destination compared to Taco Bell, and assumes customers will be willing to wait for that experience.

Chipotle
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How to place an Uber Eats group order and let everyone pick out their own order for a single delivery

Group ordering food on phone
Uber Eats group orders can save you from sharing your phone.

  • Uber Eats’ group order feature lets different users add items to a single order, and have it delivered to a single location.
  • Every person who wants to add items to a Group Order needs to have an Uber Eats account.
  • You can place a group order through the Uber Eats mobile app or the desktop website. 
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

Whether it’s getting food from your favorite local restaurant or getting groceries from the store, mobile applications like Uber Eats have been in high demand recently. And for the times you’re not eating alone, splitting the check can be relatively easy with Uber Eats’ group ordering tool. 

The feature lets you send a link to everyone in your party, allowing them to add their order using their own devices. The order can then be paid for by one person, and sent to a single address.

It’s great if you don’t want to pass your phone around to everyone in the room. Just note that everyone involved will need to have their own Uber Eats account.

Here’s how to place a group order on the Uber Eats mobile app and online. 

How to place an Uber Eats group order on the mobile app

1. Open the Uber Eats app.

2. Select a restaurant using the app’s Home dashboard or the search tool. 

3. Once you’ve decided on a restaurant, click the group order button in the top-right hand corner.

UberEatsGroup_Image1
A silhouette of a person represents the group order icon.

4. Determine your delivery address and order spending limit. Then tap “Share group order.” 

UberEatsGroup_Image2
A spending limit will prevent you from being charged beyond a specific amount.

5. A window will appear with mobile sharing options. Share the group order link via text, social media, or email with each member of your group. 

6. After all orders have been submitted, tap “View cart.” 

7. Next, select “Go to checkout.”

Uber Eats Group Order 4
Go to checkout on your Uber Eats order, but only after everyone has finished adding their items.

8. Uber Eats will then ask you to confirm everyone has submitted their order. Choose “Continue” when you’re ready. 

Uber Eats Group Order 5
Ensure everyone has added their items to the cart before locking in your Uber Eats order.

9. After verifying the items and price, hit “Next.”

Uber Eats Group Order 6
Check your payment method before placing your Uber Eats group order.

10. You’ll be asked to select a tip amount, and how you want to pay. Once you’re ready, tap “Place order.” 

How to place an Uber Eats group order through the website

1. Go to Uber Eats on your favorite browser and log in. 

2. Select a restaurant using the app’s Home dashboard or the search tool. 

Uber Eats Group Order 7
The search bars on the app and website are in different places.

3. Choose the restaurant you want to order from. 

4. In the restaurant’s banner image, click the “Start group order” icon. 

Uber Eats Group Order 8
This icon is located above the restaurant description on the far-right.

5. Use the “Edit” buttons to adjust your spending limit or delivery address. 

6. Click “Create order.” 

7. A box will appear with a link. Share it via text, social media, or email with each member of your group. Share the link to allow others to add to the Group Order. 

8. After all orders have been submitted, you can begin checkout and place your order. Just remember that once you head to checkout, you can’t edit the group order without starting from scratch.

Related coverage from Tech Reference:

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