Taco Bell has implemented new testing processes and is ready to put “meaningful” products back on the menu
Taco Bell was one of the many chains that cut their menu during the COVID-19 crisis. Such a move streamlined the operations of kitchens under the pressure of a sudden change to an entirely off-site environment.
For Taco Bell, this also helped increase store margins and speed of service, as reported at parent company meeting. Yum Brands second quarter earnings report last week.
The challenge, however, is that many consumers have expressed their dissatisfaction on articles on the chopping block.
Perhaps as a sign of encouragement, Heather Mottershaw, vice president of product development at Taco Bell, insists that the reduction is just “phase one” of a “menu evolution” and that we will see. many new innovations from Taco Bell as soon as possible. .
“We need to make sure now that we give consumers what they want and that they put it through drive-thru. To do this, reducing and streamlining operations really makes for a faster and faster experience for consumers, ”said Mottershaw, who has worked with the brand for 18 years. “But this is the first phase. What it also does is that when the time is right and consumers are ready, it allows us to create new options and new innovations.
Taco Bell isn’t quite ready to reveal when Phase Two arrives, but the chain’s innovation wheel is spinning again at full speed after a few freak months. That’s not to say the wheel works the same way it did before the crisis, however.
When the pandemic hit the United States in March and April, Taco Bell’s priorities were to make sure consumers got what they needed from the brand. Back in the day, that meant familiar and cozy basics. The chain also had to make sure operations were straightforward, as no one had a manual on what was going on.
It wasn’t until Taco Bell’s Cinco de Mayo promotion – a home-based taco bar – that things started to pick up a bit for the innovation team. The offer touched the pandemic-driven trend of bulk orders for families quarantined together. Then, in the first week of July, Taco Bell released a new item, the Grilled Cheese Burrito – the brand’s version of the classic grilled cheese sandwich.
“The Grilled Cheese Burrito is new and innovative, but a sure innovation because it is familiar as something we would make. We talked about delaying it and I’m glad we didn’t. Consumers are ready, ”Mottershaw said. She declined to release specific sales figures, but said the product “is definitely holding up and doing well.”
Taco Bell has even already planned its next test, crispy melted tacos, which will be rolling out in the Detroit market in a few weeks. Mottershaw describes it as a freshly fried white corn shell with a layer of nacho cheese on top, served with beef or black beans and topped with lettuce, tomatoes and cheese.
However, just because these “consumers are ready”, that doesn’t mean it was easy to get back into the mix. Like most of us, the innovation team moved away early in the crisis. Without access to a shared kitchen space, creating and testing got a bit tricky.
“On the night of March, we lost access to the hub of food innovation and how we grow,” Mottershaw said. “We quickly had to pivot and figure out how to keep innovating and getting this important response from consumers. It was critical. We’ve moved a lot of work virtually and it’s been surprisingly wonderful and refreshing because now we have such agility and focus and we’re actually getting richer and deeper insights which leads us to better innovation.
In June, the team gradually returned to the kitchen in small groups and launched drive-through tastings. Essentially, these tastings involve a cross-functional team and consumer groups going through the test kitchen in their cars and then testing the products, either real-time in their cars or taking them home and providing feedback later. .
“The surprising thing about this, because we’ve gone from an innovative food tasting culture to a drive-thru, is that it gives more of a real world feel to our food. This is how consumers access us, which gives us better information, ”Mottershaw said.
Taco Bell is also creating learning labs. It basically means that Taco Bell is launching an idea, even if it doesn’t match the brand, in a restaurant for a week or two to see how consumers react. These products are displayed on the menu board and through other point of sale displays and that is about it.
“We don’t talk about it too much, but it provides us with a quick and nimble way to bring new ideas to the consumer,” Mottershaw said.
These new testing processes will remain “without a doubt” after the disappearance of COVID-19, she adds.
“I think we stumbled upon a way to learn quickly and really, really focus because of the way we work. We don’t get distracted. We are able to dig deep into big ideas, ”Mottershaw said. “We almost have a new life of sorts. ”
This fine-tuned approach to food innovation may offer more agility, but that doesn’t mean Taco Bell isn’t intentional about its purpose. For example, the chain is super focused on chicken, a category that has experience meteoric growth during the last years.
“When we think about accelerating new trends, it’s really clear to us that it’s about chicken, and that means chicken as a whole,” Mottershaw said. “We’re focusing heavily on this area right now, so expect a lot of people to come here. ”
Taco Bell will also keep an eye on the group offerings that have become so popular during the crisis and will also take advantage of its high value menu under this category and beyond.
“Value has always been one of our main strengths and we will continue to double that and come up with new news. We will always strive to deliver value at any cost, be it for groups or everyday value. We have to do it so that we don’t offer less for less money, ”Mottershaw said.
And, while Taco Bell’s breakfast and late-night outlets have been disproportionately affected as commuters stay home and bars remain closed, that doesn’t mean the chain will release the gas there. . Mottershaw said work continues for both parts of the day behind the scenes and there are “plenty of ideas for when the time is right and consumers are ready.”
It’s also worth noting that Taco Bell is considering the idea of plant-based meat, but maybe not like other big QSRs have done with their Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods partnerships.
“We have been and will continue to be a vegetarian paradise. We have a lot of work going on right now to create a broader vegetarian platform, as well as plant-specific proteins, ”Mottershaw said. “You will certainly see us working through plant proteins in our unique way. This trend is not going to go away.
In fact, new data suggests that the COVID-19 crisis has dramatically accelerated the consumption of plant-based meat, with retail sales up nearly 150% from last year.
All of these ideas are in the hopper, and it just scratches the surface of what Mottershaw and the team at Taco Bell are doing right now (she also spoke about beverage innovation and the demand for items. healthier, for example). And it all goes against this larger narrative of a smaller menu. But, remember, this larger narrative takes into account nothing beyond the first phase. Phase two is not far off.
“We are really leaving. Yes, we are reducing our menu, but we are doing it knowing that it is to put innovative and meaningful products on the menu in the future, ”said Mottershaw. “And we’re doing it in a super creative and nimble way. We are not slowing down. On the contrary, we are accelerating even faster than before.