In 2020, there was a lot of discussion regarding the future of fast food. According to the coverage, that future was contactless, take-out only, and focused on third-party delivery. App-based delivery had been growing at twice the rate of the restaurant industry prior to 2020, and adoption of ghost kitchens let delivery-focused brands cut overhead and increase profits.


Perhaps delivery-only was the future?


Enter Taco Bell Defy. This new store, located in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, consists of four drive-thru lanes: one traditional drive-thru and three lanes dedicated to app-based pre-orders and third-party delivery companies. Food arrives to cars via elevators from the kitchen above. While customers can place walk up orders, the location does not feature a dining room.


At first glance, this looks like the future that those 2020 articles promised: contactless, take-out only, and third-party friendly. QSR Magazine’s coverage, however, reveals more nuance. The franchise owner shared that he is already planning the next Defy location. This iteration, however, will ditch one of the drive-thru lanes to make space for…a dining room.


The franchise owner explained that certain locations require a dining room to capture the lunch rush. He explained, “We don’t want to alienate those customers and force them to do something that’s out of their character…So we’re adapting the asset to have a dining room that will seat the appropriate amount of people for that daypart, as well as doing three lanes.”


Like any good franchise owner, he is collaborating with Taco Bell to strategically advance the brand while adapting to local needs and preferences.


Interestingly, fast casual chain McAlister’s Deli is adapting in the opposite direction, by adding a pickup window to new locations (i.e., a drive-thru lane for pre-ordered food). Prior to the pandemic, McAlister’s–like many other fast casual chains–eschewed drive-thrus in favor of in-person dining. This allowed them to distinguish themselves from traditional fast food. Recently, however, more fast casuals have incorporated pickup windows into their location designs. According to QSR, one in four McAlister’s locations now feature pickup windows and this feature will play a key role in any new restaurant design.


Like Taco Bell, McAlister’s Deli is paying close attention to customer demands and behaviors and adjusting their designs accordingly.


So is the future contactless? Yes. But it is also dine-in. Like any long-lived business, the future of fast food is adaptable.

Tim Powell is a Managing Principal of Foodservice IP. Tim serves as a trusted foodservice adviser to management at several food companies.

To learn more about FSIP’s Management Consulting Practice, click here.

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