- 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.
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.
I visited Taco Bell and Chipotle to see two sides of the very different Mexican-American food drive-thru experience.
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’s app is easy to use, with the menu broken down into easily-understood categories. It is also searchable.
It also makes it easy to customize every item on the menu, which is a key part of the chain’s appeal.
Vegetarians tend to like Taco Bell for the many meatless and vegan options, and the app smartly highlights those items.
Taco Bell has prioritized its drive-thrus over the past year and made some major changes as a result.
To some customers’ dismay, last year the chain cut over a dozen items, including potatoes, to shorten wait times.
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.
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.
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.
Part of Taco Bell’s speed and efficiency is likely due to its embrace of drive-thrus and mobile orders.
Every Taco Bell has two food assembly lines, one for the drive-thru and one for the inside counter.
Trimming down menus help workers keep both lines moving faster.
Taco Bell doesn’t make many claims about nutrition or authenticity, but the drive-thru experience is reliably fast and delicious.
I also tried out Chipotle’s “Chipotlane” drive-thru to compare.
At Chipotle, I also ordered through the app, though this time I didn’t have a choice. Chipotlanes exclusively serve mobile orders.
The app makes it easy to find a restaurant to order from, and it helpfully displays which ones are Chipotlanes.
Chipotle has been working on Chipotlanes for a few years, although they’re getting more investment thanks to the pandemic.
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’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.
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.
After ordering, you select a window of when to pick up your food. The windows are at least 20 minutes out in my experience.
The Chipotlane has no speaker or alternate windows. You just drive up to the single window and give the name associated with your order.
If you go to the window too early, you might be told to come back in five minutes, which was what happened to me.
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.”
Unlike Taco Bell, though, speed does not seem to be the top priority at Chipotle.
My food was good, and it was ready at the time the app said it would be.
The different ordering styles show how Chipotle and Taco Bell are differentiating themselves in the drive-thru Mexican food space.
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.
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.
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.