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A Combo That Clicks: Why Americans Are Eating Up Fast-Food Apps

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

Maybe you’ve heard about the recently released fancier new version of the Taco Bell app, which is designed to let customers order up a Double Decker Taco or Burrito Supreme from their smartphones. It was already attracting attention months before it actually occurred.

Maybe it seems odd — even comical — that a fast-food (or, to use the industry euphemism, “quick service”) company has an app at all. Does Taco Bell, or Wendy’s, or White Castle, really need an iPhone presence? Just how much easier can driving through a Taco Bell really be?

First of all, this is America: There is no such thing as too much convenience. Second, chew on this: According to Taco Bell, within a day of the actual release of its updated and revamped app a couple of weeks ago, roughly 75 percent of its U.S. locations served up at least one app-enabled order.

Third, I don’t come across many raps about smartphone applications, but here’s one inspired by, of all things, the new Taco Bell app. (Taco Bell says this rapper has no affiliation with or connection to the chain or its marketers.)

It’s not just Taco Bell. In fact, the list of most-downloaded free apps in the Food & Drink section of the iTunes app store is regularly dominated by the likes of Domino’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut, and the “McD app,” and of course Taco Bell.

Poke around to see what else the owners of these apps have downloaded, and it’s like driving a suburban commercial strip: Chipotle, Pizza Hut, 7-Eleven, Starbucks, Papa John’s, Chick-fil-A, Dairy Queen, Five Guys — even Auntie Anne’s pretzels.

Basically, the App Store is one Wok ’n Roll app away from being a megamall food court. 

The point is, plenty of people are downloading fast-food apps — and, evidently, using them. And, curious as that may sound, the truth is it makes perfect sense: The habits of fast-food customers and the goals of fast-food purveyors sync up in ways that an app can neatly address. And Taco Bell in particular seems to be proving that the mobile and the “quick service” food and beverage businesses go together like chips and salsa. With cheese. Plus maybe sour cream and guac.

Fast food, high tech
Taco Bell started plotting the strategy for its new and improved app a couple of years ago, according to Jeff Jenkins, Taco Bell’s director of digital experiences and new concepts. The reasons were straightforward enough. Mobile-device usage has been exploding in general — but especially among “our demographic,” Jenkins told me. That would be 18- to 34-year-olds.

And while it’s likely that nobody needs an app to acquire a Gordita Supreme, Taco Bell (like any fast-food brand) has an incentive to make the process as convenient as possible for young adults in particular: Being part of a budding consumer’s early “independent commerce experiences” can have a lasting impact, Jenkins maintained.

To its credit, the Taco Bell tech team realized that it needed to come up with something beyond a digital menu and a store locator — which is all that many fast-food apps currently offer.

Right now the main feature is the ability to order (and pay) ahead of time, from a pretty elaborate interactive menu. The options for that Double Decker Taco are legion, but easily navigated. (I didn’t place an actual order, though. I’ve aged out of the Taco Bell demo, and there are limits to what I’ll do for this column.)

Taco Bell app screenshots

True, Jenkins conceded, Taco Bell’s wares are just as customizable in-store or from the drive-through lane — but the app gives the customer more time to decide and shortens her wait. He also pointed out that the chain’s “Freeze” drinks are available for $1 through the app, and that this is a first step toward app exclusivity: There will be new food products available only via smartphone. Imagine a world, for example, where the elusive McRib is a McApp exclusive.

Getting this right, and making sure the technology worked when the customer actually showed up to collect an order, was a long and complicated process, Jenkins added. And this hints at a broader theme in the app-ification of fast food: There’s a bit of a quick-service tech arms race under way.

NPR recently described Domino’s as “a tech company that happens to make pizza.” Among the digital-order features that impressed its reporter (or rather, the interns enlisted to test the pizza-maker’s tech presence): a tracker feature that allows you to monitor your pie’s progress — from order to preparation (“Oh, there’s an animation with a pizza guy!”) to the voyage that ends with you, slumped on your couch, watching Netflix.

Domino’s app screenshots

Meanwhile, McDonald’s is experimenting with app-only special offers in some regions. And both that chain and its longtime rival Burger King have recently made deals with mobile-payment services. The Wendy’s app lets users sort its menu options by calorie count. And so on.

You may not think of fast food as a terribly innovative business, but consider how aggressively the big chains experiment with new menu items, new pricing schemes, seasonal offerings. (Same goes for slightly higher-end quick-service businesses like Starbucks — which has reportedly been “turning itself into a tech company.”)

And in fairness to Domino’s competitors, many of its pizza rivals have been similarly clever with their apps and online systems. Perhaps the ever-customizable pizza has a special place in the pecking order of fast-food creativity. After all, when Steve Case worked for Pizza Hut, his job, as one profile put it, “entailed traveling around the country in search of new ideas for pizza toppings.” He quit that gig, of course — and founded AOL.

“Heavy users”
Still, none of these apps, however clever, will mean a thing if they don’t whet the appetite of our ever-peckish nation.

Fast-food chains rely on a particular category of consumer for much of their business — the “heavy user.” OK, stop snickering. That really is the industry term for customers who frequent such chains repeatedly.

One assessment of core McDonald’s customers, for instance, estimated that 20 percent eat there three to five times a week, accounting for 70 percent of total visits. Others parse the numbers differently, but the upshot is similar across the category. As one fast-food exec put it to The Wall Street Journal a while back, these customers “come more often, they spend more money, and that’s what makes the cash registers ring.”

On the other hand, given that the heavy users don’t seem to be going anywhere, many chains devote more marketing effort to wooing new customers.

Surely another reason fast food companies are developing a craving for apps is that they can actually serve both groups. For now, at least, the sheer novelty has netted early movers like Taco Bell and Domino’s a healthy portion of free publicity, perhaps piquing the interest of new or intermittent customers.

As for the regulars: Loyalty reward schemes are a prominent ingredient of apps from Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and others. Taco Bell says it will add a similar feature to its app next year.

Dunkin' Donuts app screenshot

And while Jenkins said the app was designed to be easy for newbies (it seemed so to me), it also has features “our core customer will enjoy.” For instance, he told me that something like 70 percent of Taco Bell customers basically order the same thing every time. So when you’re ready for another Crunchwrap Supreme just like the one you had yesterday, you can revisit your prior purchase and “rotate to reorder” — basically, tilt your phone and you’re set; no need to go through and eliminate the lettuce and tomatoes again.

Taco Bell Rotate to Reorder feature

Now that’s convenience. But Jenkins emphasized that the chain’s new app is a beginning, not a conclusion: “We’ve got big plans.” While he wouldn’t get specific, I suspect that this is not a gimmicky publicity ploy and that the chain wants to do as much with mobile as it can.

Moreover, I’d guess that everyone else in the quick-service category is thinking the same thing. Right now, you might not be able to take the idea of a fast-food app seriously. But it’s pretty clear that Taco Bell and its quick-service peers believe that fast food and high tech are a perfect combo.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.