As the fast-service food industry continues to look toward automation to streamline order processing and minimize the role human employees play behind the counter, it’s interesting to note that the seasoned beef peddlers at Taco Bell were well ahead of the curve. In the 1990s, the company developed and installed the Taco-Matic, a giant machine that could assemble their classic taco in mere seconds.
According to a Thrillist investigation, the taco chain was experiencing such rapid growth in the ‘90s that executives began looking toward increasing kitchen efficiency. The company’s engineers developed the Automatic Taco Machine (or ATM), a giant, stainless-steel food assembly appliance that could spit out 900 tacos an hour, or one every four seconds. The machine layered on meat, lettuce, tomatoes, and other toppings before depositing it all into a wrapper.
In a patent application, Taco Bell described the process:
A soft tortilla is removable from a stack of tortillas by a vacuum pick-up head and is heated and is inserted between a pair of heated plates where it is compressed and heated. A pusher bar moves downwardly through slots in the heater plates to fold the tortilla and push it onto the conveyor. A hot food dispenser and a cold food dispenser dispense hot and cold food onto the tortilla as it is moved by the conveyor. A hard taco shell is removable from a stack of taco shells by a reciprocably [sic] mounted peeler which separates the bottom taco shell from the stack and supports the stack while the bottom taco shell drops to the conveyor. The conveyor moves the taco shell past the hot and cold food dispensers.
The units were installed in three Southern California Taco Bell locations in 1992. Once they were in operation, the company was surprised to find it had inadvertently traded efficiency for consumer satisfaction. The tacos spit out by the machine seemed to combine the ingredients in a way that customers didn’t like. There was something “off” about the taste that was vaguely defined but unacceptable. Taco satisfaction levels plummeted.
Taco Bell was also dismayed to learn that there was no quick fix for the machines breaking down, a problem that could virtually stall a location’s supply until it was repaired. The company halted plans for a taco robot revolution. Today, only one machine remains in a storage room at their corporate headquarters in Irvine, California.