Wyoming-Based Taco John’s Moving Toward Digital-Only Ordering

Like many fast food chains, Taco John's is moving toward digital-only ordering, robotics to help cook food, and using artificial intelligence to automate drive-through orders.

Renée Jean

August 25, 20235 min read

A Taco John's restaurant in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
A Taco John's restaurant in Cheyenne, Wyoming. (Greg Johnson, Cowboy State Daily)

Star Trek was set in a future where physical money is obsolete on Earth.

That future could be coming true sooner than one might think, at least when it comes to tacos and other fast-food items.

Taco John’s is among the fast-food chains considering digital-only orders in the future.

“We are seeing the same trend (as other chains) in consumer preference for digital ordering,” Taco John’s CEO Jim Creel told Cowboy state Daily. “It allows them to skip the line, saving them precious time. And because of the great deals brands are offering their loyal digital customers, they are saving money as well.”

Digital ordering has also improved accuracy, Creel said, along with helping to eliminate cash handling.

“(That’s) a benefit to both the operator and the consumer,” he said. “That is why we put so much emphasis into the marketing behind our app and our Bigger, Bolder Rewards program, to ensure our guests are reading these benefits in their experience with our brand.”

Creel believes Taco John’s will likely be digital-only as early as 2030.

Not Just Taco John’s

A variety of fast-food joints have already begun the move to digital ordering and, in some cases, have even spent significant money remodeling stores to reflect these new trends.

McDonalds, for example, hit the redo button on its facilities nationwide, announcing a $6 billion campaign to “modernize” all of its restaurants.

The revamp includes kiosks where customers can self-order, as well as designated parking spots for curbside pickup. 

Restrooms were placed right off entryways so they’d be more convenient to drive-through customers. Dining rooms are now smaller and kitchens larger, to reflect that fewer people are choosing to eat at the locations, and more people are ordering out to eat at home.

Wendy’s, meanwhile, has been trialing artificial intelligence to automate drive-through orders — an idea that Creel said Taco John’s is also testing out. 

“It takes about six weeks for the computer to listen to orders at the drive-thru,” Creel said. “So, we’ve been going through that, and then we’ll test taking orders with artificial intelligence.”

Creel said that method is about 95% accurate, which is comparable to having people take the orders.

“So, we think it’s going to be a great thing going froward, especially because we still struggle getting employees,” he said. “You know, every restaurant could use another 80 employees.”

Artificial Intelligence Rollout Coming Soon

Creel expects that Taco John’s will start using artificial intelligence to take actual orders sometime in September. 

“Everybody’s racing to the same goal,” Creel said. 

He said part of the process is developing backup plans, so that people working in the restaurant will have a game plan if something goes wrong with the technology on a given day.

“We also have a new (point-of-sale) system we’re implementing that when you order a burrito, it will drop a tortilla into a warmer to warm it up, instead of having a person having to look at a screen, get the tortilla, and warm it up.”

Creel believes that will improve service for customers without taking away jobs.

“We’re looking at the things we can do to take out some of the mundane tasks people have to do, to make the job a little bit more fun,” he said.

Some of the chain’s distribution centers are already robotic, Creel said. 

“There’s not even lights inside the warehouse, unless somebody’s in there to, you know, work on a machine,” he said. “It’s all done robotically, so it’s coming in some industries.

“But I think for restaurants that will be a little farther down the road. Especially when it comes to tacos and burritos, you’ve got a lot of rolling and things to do. That could be a while before machines are able to do that.”

It’s All About The Labor Crunch

Creel doubts restaurants will ever be 100% automated, but added that the labor crunch has a lot to do with the direction restaurants like Taco John’s are going.

“If there was plenty of labor available in stores, plenty of people who wanted to work in restaurants, I don’t know that we would have gone down this path,” he said. “It’s only because we’ve been so short of labor. 

The issue is not just affecting Taco John’s, he added.

“It’s everybody in the restaurant industry,” he said. “So, we have to look for ways to continue to serve the customer and meet their expectations.”

Creel also believes the sector will see more delivery-oriented models, and even restaurants that are built solely for delivery.

“We’ve got a couple of drive-through only restaurants in some small towns in South Dakota,” he said. “There’s no dining room. It’s less expensive to do that. You don’t need quite as much labor to run those restaurants, and they’re doing very well. So, I think that will continue, at least in fast foods, to see dining rooms kind of slow down and maybe go away.”

Renée Jean can be reached at renee@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter