In defense of Taco Bell’s vibrant drive-thru culture

Taco Bell wants to make drive-thrus a better experience.
Taco Bell wants to make drive-thrus a better experience.
Image: AP Photo/Steve Helber
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First the streaming wars changed how we watch TV. Now, something even more fundamental to American life is about to be disrupted: how we get Mexican food.

I’m talking about “Chipotlanes”—Chipotle’s plan to revolutionize the Mexican food drive-thru experience for Americans from Virginia to Texas, and a few states in between.

On Wednesday (Feb. 6), the fast-casual chain announced during an earnings call it will open a few dozen outlets that do away with the need to order food through a speaker and pull up to a pickup window to retrieve it. Instead, customers will type their orders into an app, pull into their Chipotlane, and wait for someone to bring it out, reports USA Today.

But will the audacious plan work for the oft-troubled chain? Overseeing the Chipotlane effort is CEO Brian Niccol, who joined the company last year and previously ran Taco Bell, a company noted for, according to the paper, a “vibrant drive-thru culture.”

I can attest to that culture. Many of my most joyous memories center around the Taco Bell drive-thru. College nights out usually culminated in a trip to “the Bell,” ordering a Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme or a Seven Layer Burrito with a side of quesadilla sauce, then pulling into the nearest empty parking spot to dive into the bounty. After all, the fourth meal tastes great even late, and there’s no time for getting out of the car and sitting at a table.

I’m not alone. No less a figure than Fergie, she of Black Eyed Peas fame, has retained her fondness for the Bell’s drive-thru experience, as evidenced by the video for her hit single “Glamorous,” which includes the lyrics: “I still go to Taco Bell drive-thru, raw as hell/I don’t care, I’m still real/No matter how many records I sell.”

As she croons, the image on screen fades from a Taco Bell excursion in the backseat of a stretch limo to a flashback of young Fergie and her friends hitting up the drive-thru, ready to live mas (see the 01:16 mark).

Fortunately, there’s no immediate threat to this cherished lifestyle, which has prompted pages of commentary on Reddit among the 36,000 members of r/Taco Bell. Drive-thru orders accounted for up to 70% of Taco Bell’s revenue in 2017, according to Food and Wine.

Yet the Bell drive-thru may, slowly, lose its cultural relevance. In 2017, Taco Bell announced plans to open hundreds of outlets that serve booze and have no drive-thru.

And then there are the new-fangled Chipotlanes, which may well be the shape of things to come. If so, I for one will raise a glass to the vibrant culture that was, even if I, too, end up chowing down on Lifestyle Bowls (in my designated parking spot) that I ordered from my phone.