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How apps are changing fast food

The world of fast food is getting faster and redefining the future of mobile payments

February 15, 2014 07:02 AM ET

Computerworld - No need to "run for the border" when you want a gordita or a chalupa. Taco Bell lets you place orders with a smartphone app. The fast-food chain is testing a mobile phone-based ordering system at five Southern California locations, with plans to expand nationwide by the end of the year.

The app does what you might expect. It shows the complete menu, with all options on each item. You can choose exactly what you want before you get to the restaurant. When you arrive, you simply pick up your order. And because your credit card is registered with the app, your food will already be paid for when you pick it up.

Plus, the app does some neat tricks you might not expect. For example, you can place an order even if you're too far away to pick it up quickly. The GPS in your phone will notify the restaurant when you get close, alerting the staff to start preparing your order.

You can pick up your order either inside the restaurant or at the drive-through window.

The app is also mildly contextual. Its interface changes depending on the time of day. Pricing defaults to the menu of the nearest location. It also gives you directions to that location.

Taco Bell has been developing the app for two years, according to reports.

Why fast food?

The fast-food industry is perfect for this kind of application. The reason is that fast-food menus are highly standardized -- even the options (hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, etc.) are standardized.

When you walk into a restaurant and order, the cashier behind the counter presses preset buttons on a big pad. The ordering system that has been in place for decades is easily replicated by a mobile app, resulting in the same outcome -- a printout or a screen display showing the complete order for the food assembly workers.

The other component of a fast-food register, of course, is the point-of-sale system -- something also replicable with an app.

Essentially, what's happening is that cashiers are being replaced by apps. And why not? Why do you need a teenager to press buttons on a screen and process your credit card when you can press your own buttons on your own screen and process your own credit card?

An app also works like a loyalty card. Once you install the app, you're more likely to use it -- and you're more likely to patronize the restaurant.

Everybody's doing it

Chipotle Mexican Grill is way ahead of Taco Bell. It has an app that's already usable at all of its locations. Just order your meal, then pick it up. You can even save your favorite meals for easy re-ordering later.



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