Taco Bell is an unintentional architectural icon. The fast-food chain’s aging white brick buildings from the 1970s and ’80s are unmistakable, even decades later, when so many have been inhabited by other businesses.
Today at SXSW in Austin, the company has revealed a new, more ephemeral building concept: The first Taco Bell built from shipping containers. With about half the footprint of a traditional Taco Bell, constructed in a mere three days, and considered with a Lego-like modularity that could make it fit in a variety of contexts, the store is a pop-up experiment in how the company might deal with a looming crisis of scale. Taco Bell plans to open 2,000 new U.S. locations by 2022—that’s a 33% increase in stores—with the goal of doubling the company’s revenues to $14 billion in less than 10 years. To do that, Taco Bell needs to penetrate more markets without the overhead of traditional buildings.
If the narrative sounds familiar, that’s because Starbucks is already tackling the same problem with the same solution. Starbucks has been converting shipping containers into LEED-certified coffee huts for the past three years.
But whereas Starbucks gussied up the containers with reclaimed wood paneling, sheet metal finishes, and local artwork, Taco Bell is taking more of an understated approach: the first store looks more like a bunch of unadorned steel boxes stacked precariously by a kid playing with giant blocks. The shipping containers have been repainted, sure, but they’ve been repainted in matted white and burnt sienna–the latter of which a warm, rusty tone that emphasizes the containers’ industrial finish rather than masking it. “We started in a place that was exactly like Starbucks with all this wood on the side,” says Kati Gardiner, Manager of Brand Experience at Taco Bell. “It was beautiful, but we lost the coolness.”
Walking around the construction site just two days before the restaurant would open to visitors, I had to admit, the effect worked in Austin, where every restaurant and food truck seems to have been pieced together by some junkyard Etsy seller. But it was also more thoughtful than I realized, with a modular efficiency that could make these installations highly customizable. “Depending on the site, you could add containers like Lego,” Gardiner says.
For instance, the main container where you order and pick up your food holds one complete Taco Bell prep line. However, traditional full-sized Taco Bells actually have two prep lines. So for higher traffic areas, Taco Bell could actually place two containers, side by side, and mirror the assembly line like a double-wide trailer.
Taco Bell worked with Starbucks’s same container suppliers when thinking how food prep could squeeze into a box, and they heard that the employee experience of working inside a Starbucks shipping container was a bit claustrophobic. As a concession, designers carved out another big window in the side. (That also means customers will see the backs of employees as they prepare food on the line—that collection of meats, cheeses, and shells that’s generally in eyeshot at a Taco Bell, but not necessarily intended to be theater.) “It’s not set up ideally,” Gardiner admits. “There are different schools of thought. We decided to round up on the employee side.”
A second full-sized container holds storage and operations—complete with an office for a manager. And then a third container is just sort of stacked on top of all this stuff. At first glance, I figured it was decorative. In reality, the third container holds all of the cooling equipment. Finally, a few partial containers are welded onto the structure, containing a bathroom in one case, and a freezer in another.
The only catch is that, as with Starbucks’s container stores, there is no internal space for customers to sit. Instead, customers can enjoy their chalupas at tables built from refinished wood pallets and giant wire spools turned on their sides. Plus, the design can easily accommodate a drive thru (the way the operations have been designed, it’s really just a matter of drilling some more holes and adding a few more windows).
After SXSW, this container Taco Bell will be relocated to an undisclosed location. And as for whether or not Taco Bell will be building a whole fleet of these stores, they seem to be waiting to hear customer feedback before committing (publicly, at least) either way. “In the entrepreneurial spirit, we’re just going to see what happens,” Gardiner says.