Merchant Innovation

Taco Bell Embraces Fast Food’s New Decadent Reality

In 2004, documentarian Morgan Spurlock released “Super Size Me.” Four years later, “Food, Inc.” hit the silver screen. Alongside hit pieces like these, common sense prevailed for fast food chains of every stripe to accept an uncomfortable fact: American diners were fed up with unhealthy fast food, and they had precious time to adapt.

Fast forward to 2016 — a time when the supposed tidal wave of health-conscious consumers should have solidified itself into rising sea levels — and what is McDonald’s, the most profitable fast food company on the planet, doing? It’s taking its Premium McWraps, the signature “healthy” item designed to keep foodie millennials from abandoning it, and 86ing it from the menu.

It’s all part of a pivot the fast food industry has been embroiled in for a few years, but for every McDonald’s and Burger King that have the luxury of market inertia to wait, see and react to consumer trends, there are the Taco Bells of the QSR world that have been pushing culinary and caloric boundaries before it was the cool (or ostensibly profitable) thing to do. In fact, Taco Bell has carved out something of a cult social media following for itself on the back of its sometimes-hairbrained, sometimes-prescient product releases, like Doritos-branded tacos and breakfast burritos inside quesadillas — and vice versa — emblazoned with appropriate Spanglish names, like Quesarito and Cheesy Gordita Crunch.

But Taco Bell’s newest concoction unveiled in February — the Quesalupa — proves that fast food can capture the hearts of a young generation of diners as long as it ditches the healthy in favor of the cheesy, the oily and the all-around decadent.

Bloomberg has the story of the pains Taco Bell took, and continues to take, to ensure that the Quesalupa — a cheese-lined chalupa surrounding an assortment of standard ingredients — maintains a foodie-esque level of culinary excellence. Though Taco Bell executives explained that the item took about two years to actually research and develop, the mission continues inside what’s known as the “Fishbowl” — a social media-centric situation room inside the Irvine, California headquarters, staffed with 15 watchdogs all on the lookout for tweets, Instagram posts and any other digital post containing complaints that a just-eaten Quesalupa out in the world did not live up to expectations.

On a case-by-case basis, complaints can trigger members of the Fishbowl to send out reminders to the offending stores (or all 6,500 of them) of the proper preparation necessary to achieve the desired “Cheese Pull” — the Michelin star look of the Quesalupa’s cheese tantalizingly stretching out of its shell. If the Quesalupas are flash-fried for anything other than 90 seconds and if they’re left to sit longer than 15 minutes, the cheese in the shell will start to congeal and won’t produce the desired effect.

And if enough complaints are made to that effect, Taco Bell has equipped itself with the apparatus to immediately acknowledge and intervene.

At first glance, it’s an odd mechanism for a fast food industry that was once concerned with nothing more than compartmentalization and efficient production in the preparation process, but shifting consumer attitudes have prompted not just a pulling away from pseudo-healthy menu items but doubling down on excessively salt-, sugar- and fat-laden products that provide millennial diners with an eating experience — hence the actual look and feel of the cheese in a Quesalupa — that they can’t get anywhere else. A 2014 survey by Mintel found that an overwhelming 75 percent of young millennials want “to experience more new flavors when dining at restaurants” and 62 percent consider themselves “adventurous eaters” willing to branch out when necessary for a new culinary journey.

The death of McDonald’s Premium McWraps, alongside the continued success and ongoing quality assurance of Taco Bell’s successively quirkier faux Tex-Mex menu items, prove that this is a new reality among millennial consumers. With so many fast-casual restaurants offering fresh ingredients and boasting squeaky clean health-conscious reputations, Taco Bell has little incentive to try and fight them at their own game. It’s a logical conclusion: If consumers want to eat healthy, they now know not to seek out fast food in the first place.

How has this fared for the Yum! Brands subsidiary? Though the Quesalupa is a bit too fresh (well, new, at the very least) to show up in sales numbers, Yum! CEO Greg Creed noted that Taco Bell’s “gold standard for social engagement, product development, brand positioning and advertising” are all critical factors for the $9 billion in system sales it generated in 2015 — an 8 percent increase in constant currency from the year prior. 2015 also marked the opening of Taco Bell’s first storefront in China.

Though it’s evidently to great effect, Taco Bell is just playing to its strengths — its cheesy, crunchy, LDL strengths. And if it strays from that mission statement, offending stores can expect an email from the Fishbowl at HQ.

How long before the rest of fast food realizes that Quesalupas and not McWraps are the only way forward?

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