El Pollo Loco Will Airdrop Tacos With Its 'Air Loco' Drone Delivery Service

Sarah Favot

Favot is an award-winning journalist and adjunct instructor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She previously was an investigative and data reporter at national education news site The 74 and local news site LA School Report. She's also worked at the Los Angeles Daily News. She was a Livingston Award finalist in 2011 and holds a Master's degree in journalism from Boston University and BA from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.

El Pollo Loco says it will become the first national restaurant company to experiment with door-to-backyard drone delivery.

On June 24, the Costa Mesa-based restaurant chain, known for its fire-roasted chicken, will test "Air Loco," its drone delivery from restaurant kitchens to customers' backyards.

As more and more people ordered delivery during the pandemic, restaurants are looking for alternative cheaper and more efficient ways to bring food to customers' homes. In 2016, Amazon was one of the first companies to discuss using autonomous aerial vehicles to deliver packages to customers' doorsteps in 30 minutes or less. But Amazon Prime Air has yet to get off the ground and into widespread use.

With the Federal Aviation Administration recently approving rules for delivery services to people's homes, it is expected more and more drones will be taking to the skies to make restaurant and other types of deliveries.

For El Pollo Loco, delivery service became a larger part of its business during the pandemic, growing by 250% over the last year, and the drone service is a way to avoid service fees from traditional delivery services like Grubhub, Uber Eats, DoorDash and others that charge up to 30% in transaction fees. It also is a way to make more deliveries more quickly and is expected to be more cost effective and convenient for customers.

"We wanted to lead the way and be the first to deliver a memorable experience to our customers in a cost efficient, fun, and reliable fashion in a way no restaurant brand had previously attempted," Andy Rebhun, El Pollo Loco's Vice President and Digital Officer said in an email.

Other restaurants have tested drone delivery to designated pickup sites, like parking lots, wherein a delivery vehicle will pick up the order from the drop-off site and deliver it to the customer's home for the last leg of the trip. Rebhun said El Pollo Loco wanted to take the step of delivering the items directly to the customer's backyard or front door.

He doesn't think drone delivery for the restaurant industry will be a passing fad.

"I believe drone delivery is one of the more sustainable and cost-effective mechanisms for food delivery in the future," he said. "I believe there will be a bifurcated delivery model in the future where businesses will choose to operate in the most efficient and margin positive mechanism."

El Pollo Loco is launching the pilot with Tel Aviv-based drone startup Flytrex, which manufactures and operates automated drones that travel at 32 miles per hour and use a wire release mechanism to gently lower food orders from 80 feet.

The drone for the service is also outfitted with a fastened delivery box that keeps orders intact, which means customers will receive their orders packed in El Pollo Loco's new special packaging — used to keep food hotter for longer — more quickly than it takes for a conventional delivery to arrive.

When the order leaves the restaurant, the food will be loaded on the Air Loco drone and once it takes off, it will ascend to about 200 feet and start the flight to the destination, Rebhun said. The drone can carry up to 6.6 pounds of food. Once the food is lowered from the 80-foot wire, the tamper-proof sealed delivery bag will detach from the crane and the customer can retrieve their food.

El Pollo Loco will begin its pilot at 10 restaurants, which will be selected within the next 45 to 60 days, the company said. Once the test is completed, it plans to expand to more of its 480 restaurants depending on demand and regulatory approval from the FAA. During the pilot, a select number of El Pollo Loco's Loco Rewards members in Southern California will be surprised with one of the first flights, the company said.

It doesn't appear as though delivery orders will slow down for restaurants.

Analysts predict that online ordering will grow this year even as restaurants open back up to traditional full-capacity dining service. The global online food delivery market is expected to grow from $115.07 billion in 2020 to $126.91 billion in 2021.

The growth rate for online food ordering and restaurant delivery has been 20% in the last five years and is expected to comprise about 40% of all restaurant sales by 2025.

Flytrex launched a pilot program with Walmart in Fayetteville, North Carolina to deliver select grocery and household essential items. It also delivers Starbucks beverages and pastries.

Earlier this year, Pizza Hut Israel said it would deploy drones to deliver pizzas. But rather than delivering directly to customers' homes, the company said the drones would drop-off the orders at a government-approved landing zone, like a parking lot, and from there a driver would make the final leg of the delivery.

In 2019, Uber Eats started testing drone delivery for McDonald's in San Diego.

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Hollywood Crews, Studios Reach Tentative Deal to Avoid a Strike

Harrison Weber

Do you know something we should know about L.A. tech or venture capital? Reach out securely via Signal: +1 917 434 4978.

Harrison is dot.LA's senior finance reporter. They previously worked for Gizmodo, Fast Company, VentureBeat and Flipboard. Find them on Twitter: @harrisonweber. Send tips on L.A. deals to harrison@dot.la. Pronouns: they/them.

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