How the ‘create your own’ restaurant concept took over fast food — and created a massive headache for workers

How the ‘create your own’ restaurant concept took over fast food — and created a massive headache for workers

Restaurant chains with highly customizable menus exploded in recent years and remain popular.
The rise of mobile ordering made modifying orders much easier.
Some workers say these customizations have made customers demanding and unreasonable.

In 2022, diners expect to walk into the fast food chain of their choice and customize a dish from start to finish. Chipotle is the poster child for that “create your own” assembly line model, but it’s used across the industry from Subway to Sweetgreen to Cava.

These customizable dishes, originally made right in front of you but now often ordered via an app, date at least back to Subway’s beginnings in 1965, but they’ve become more ubiquitous in the last decade. 

Chipotle was initially a novelty, an assembly line where customers could point directly to ingredients and watch them go into their ideal burrito. The rise of mobile ordering made customizing much easier, giving customers the ability to clarify exactly how they want a dish made, down to specifying “extra,” “light,” or “normal” amounts of each ingredient.

Digital orders made it easier to customize orders across the fast food world. Chains like Taco Bell launched mobile-only combos of multiple menu items. Other restaurant concepts, like Cava and Sweetgreen, emerged with build-your-own style menus that are primarily ordered online. Customers also tend to make larger and more complicated orders digitally, where they are less likely to feel judged by servers.

At other chains where customization was already part of the allure, mobile ordering made it easier than ever. Customizing drinks at Starbucks is a major part of the overall appeal, but as mobile orders exploded over the last few years, some baristas say, so have requests for drink modifications.

Average Starbucks tickets reached a record high in 2021, thanks in part to larger orders and more drink modifications. Some baristas have told Insider about orders with huge numbers of custom requests, like an iced latte with 12 shots of coffee, alongside five shots of hazelnut syrup, drinks with so many modifications that they couldn’t fit inside the appropriate cup, and even being asked to blend food into drinks.

These orders are not the norm, according to Starbucks, which previously told Insider that 75% of customized beverages had fewer than three modifications.

The growth of highly customizable orders across fast food has made jobs much more difficult for workers, a Taco Bell manager who just left the chain after 20 years told Insider.  “Digital ordering is the worst thing that ever happened to Taco Bell,” he said, because of the “ridiculously customized” orders customers make online. He pointed to the example of the chicken sandwich taco, to which some customers would add every possible additional item. “How are we supposed to fit this on there?” he asked.

Workers at other chain echo the Taco Bell veteran. “These orders are driving us insane because they’re so long, so specific, and it requires you to do much more work than you should be doing for one single drink,” a Starbucks shift supervisor in New York told The Guardian.

Custom drinks from social media like TikTok are also increasing the need for labor,” a Starbucks supervisor in Pennsylvania previously told Insider.

This shift is in part thanks to the rapid advances in technology used by fast-food chains, like online ordering, and people becoming accustomed to being at home and having everything delivered, the worker said. Many customers are “starting to treat fast food as their personal catering service,” the Taco Bell worker said, with extreme modifications to every item and no empathy or understanding for overwhelmed workers.

Some other workers feel the same way. The “entitlement and anonymity that comes with the internet has made people awful,” a former Texas Chipotle worker told Insider. 

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Retail, Retail, Fast Food, Fast Casual, Chipotle, Taco Bell, Sweetgreen, cava, Starbucks, Labor, Workers, QSR, analysis

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