How Taco Bell Built an Empire on Bizarre Foods

November 29, 2018

Taco Bell has routinely produced a full slate of bizarre takes on traditional Mexican food. Think: the waffle taco, chicken chips, and the enchirito. This type of gimmick is not unique in fast food – but Taco Bell has found a way to make the gimmick real. And lucrative. 

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Carl Mueler: [MUSIC] This is not a taco,

Carl Mueler: but it's what it was to me

Carl Mueler: growing up in suburban Massachusetts.

Carl Mueler: The hard shell taco was popularized in

Carl Mueler: the United States in 1951 by Glenn Bell.

Carl Mueler: Yes, that bell. Since then,

Carl Mueler: Taco Bell has continued to introduce

Carl Mueler: bizarre takes on standard menu items.

Male 1: [MUSIC] What is this?

Male 1: A waffle taco?

Male 1: What's next? A pancake enchilada?

Male 2: It's a slippery slope, I tell you.

Carl Mueler: Sure, it's a little gimmicky,

Carl Mueler: but it might just be marketing genius.

Carl Mueler: Taco Bell has created a way to make

Carl Mueler: the gimmick real and profitable.

Carl Mueler: [MUSIC] In 1948,

Carl Mueler: 25 year old Glenn Bell started

Carl Mueler: a food stand in San Bernardino California.

Carl Mueler: Bell's Hamburgers and hotdogs were at the same time,

Carl Mueler: the McDonald's brothers new fast food joint

Carl Mueler: was beginning to claim the burger market.

Carl Mueler: Bell needed to be different.

Carl Mueler: Across the street from his stand was

Carl Mueler: a small but busy Mexican restaurant, Mitla Cafe.

Carl Mueler: He fell in love with the food,

Carl Mueler: especially the light crispy tortillas,

Carl Mueler: stuffed with ground beef and lettuce.

Carl Mueler: So, much so that he tried to

Carl Mueler: replicate it with a makeshift Fryer.

Carl Mueler: His final creation was

Carl Mueler: a much crunchier version of the Mitla Café item.

Carl Mueler: Less messy, easy to eat on the go.

Carl Mueler: Accurate or not, Bell called it a taco,

Carl Mueler: which he originally sold for 19 cents.

Carl Mueler: [MUSIC] It was a smash hit.

Carl Mueler: So, in 1954, he opened a new stand,

Carl Mueler: Taco-Tia, and over the next decade,

Carl Mueler: he continued to open more.

Carl Mueler: He finally opened his first Taco Bell restaurant

Carl Mueler: in 1962, in Downey California.

Carl Mueler: The hard shell taco, Ortega,

Carl Mueler: as first time customers called it,

Carl Mueler: was Bell's first innovation.

Carl Mueler: Since then, the company has released

Carl Mueler: a steady flow of somewhat bizarre menu items.

Carl Mueler: This is the Enchirito.

Carl Mueler: While a burrito is typically

Carl Mueler: a flower tortilla filled with beans and

Carl Mueler: enchilada is traditionally a corn tortilla

Carl Mueler: filled with meat and smothered in chili sauce.

Carl Mueler: The Enchirito was released in 1967

Carl Mueler: and was a popular menu item for almost 30 years.

Carl Mueler: Original and unique items like

Carl Mueler: the chili burger proved to be

Carl Mueler: a winning formula for Glen Bell.

Carl Mueler: Taco Bell was bought by Pepsi Co.

Carl Mueler: In 1978 even with

Carl Mueler: new owners the strategy remained the same.

Carl Mueler: Produce a menu of traditional items

Carl Mueler: while experimenting with new hybrid foods.

Male 3: The all new naked chicken chips.

Male 3: Made of crispy fried chicken dipped

Male 3: in a seductive nacho cheese sauce.

Carl Mueler: This innovation-based strategy is called Buzz.

Carl Mueler: Each one of these items is designed to create noise.

Male 4: [MUSIC] Black Jack Taco.

Male 4: Ooh. 89 cents exclusively at Taco Bell.

Carl Mueler: Other fast food companies chase buzz

Carl Mueler: with innovative menu items too.

Male 5: [MUSIC] In case you haven't heard

Male 5: Wendy's has fresh stuff [inaudible 00:02:42].

Carl Mueler: All of which you will no longer find on a menu, anywhere.

Male 6: [MUSIC] The new champions of taste.

Male 6: Mighty wings from McDonald's.

Carl Mueler: And sure Taco Bell had some failures.

Male 7: [MUSIC] In producing new seafood salad from Taco Bell.

Carl Mueler: But those aside, a lot of those buzz

Carl Mueler: worthy test runs became menu staples.

Male 8: As a Taco Bell taste?

Male 8: Grilled. So it's good to go.

Male 8: Genius. I know.

Carl Mueler: So how did Taco Bell succeed in

Carl Mueler: transforming buzz into billions?

Carl Mueler: In March 2018, Cheddar Live had Taco Bell CMO,

Carl Mueler: Marisa Thalberg on the show.

Marisa Thalberg: That to me speaks to

Marisa Thalberg: doing things that's for sure generate buzz.

Marisa Thalberg: But it's because the idea itself is exciting.

Marisa Thalberg: It touches people, makes people want to come.

Marisa Thalberg: It makes people want to share.

Carl Mueler: It sounds like PR but I really think she means it.

Carl Mueler: Taco Bell dedicates serious

Carl Mueler: resources into new food items.

Carl Mueler: Their insights lab test

Carl Mueler: 4500 new product ideas every year.

Carl Mueler: 350 to 500 of those ideas end up in consumer tests.

Carl Mueler: Eight to 10 of which end up on the national menu.

Carl Mueler: And the returns are usually immediate.

Carl Mueler: Taco Bell debuted the Doritos Locos Tacos

Carl Mueler: in March of 2012.

Carl Mueler: In just 10 weeks,

Carl Mueler: 100 million were sold.

Carl Mueler: While Taco Bell never came close to being

Carl Mueler: America's favorite fast food chain,

Carl Mueler: it did have complete control over

Carl Mueler: the Mexican fast food market, for a time.

Carl Mueler: But now, other competitors like Chipotle,

Carl Mueler: Moes and Qdoba entered the ring.

Carl Mueler: Taco Bell still holds a commanding lead.

Carl Mueler: It overtook Burger King to become the fourth largest U.S.

Carl Mueler: chain with nine point eight billion in sales in 2017.

Carl Mueler: Chipotle had a revenue of

Carl Mueler: 4.5 billion but that lead is shrinking.

Carl Mueler: So, back to the lab for Taco Bell.