Taco Bell goes gourmet

The Cantina bowl is part of Taco Bell's new gourmet menu, which rolls out July 5, 2012 across the United States.

Taco Bell product development manager Rene Pisciotti adds citrus marinated chicken to a Cantina bowl, part of Taco Bell's new menu which rolls out July 5, 2012.

Sarah Gardner: When I say Taco Bell you think what? Quick and easy carbs to fill up a growing teenage boy? Well, that's what comes to my mind, I admit.  But the fast-food chain rolled out a new menu today. It's burritos and salad bowls with black beans, cilantro rice and other things fresh, and it sounds a lot like the slightly more upscale Chipotle chain.

Susan Valot visited Taco Bell's headquarters in Irvine, Calif., to check out the new corporate recipe.


Susan Valot: The Taco Bell test kitchen looks exactly like what you'll find at a Taco Bell restaurant. It's at the company's headquarters in Irvine, south of Los Angeles. The counter's filled with containers of beans, guacamole and cheese.

Rene Pisciotti: To start with, this is our new cilantro rice.

Rene Pisciotti is the head of product development here. The idea for the gourmet menu started a few years ago, after the restaurant surveyed customers and found many people equated Taco Bell with the old adage 'Taco Smell.'

Here's senior marketing manager Ellie Doty.

Ellie Doty: We serve great quality product and we make every order when you order it, but people just didn't know it and they were pretty skeptical about the quality that we could provide at Taco Bell.

So the company decided to team up with a celebrity chef -- in this case, Lorena Garcia, a Venezuelan chef based in Miami. The goal? Capture a more upscale segment of the fast food market.

Greg Creed is the CEO of Taco Bell.

Greg Creed: Our customers said we weren't as relevant as we could be. So there's a group of our customers that really love us. We sell great tasting food that doesn't cost a lot. But there were people who said, 'You know what? I used to love Taco Bell when I was in college, but it's no longer as relevant as it could be.'

Fast food giants like McDonald's and Wendy's have already introduced gourmet items on their menus.

Nancy Luna: Well everybody is looking to kind of grab ahold of the fast casual customer, which is kind of considered the step up, you know, to fast food, that's going to have higher, premium quality ingredients. 

Nancy Luna writes the Fast Food Maven blog for the Orange County Register newspaper. She says Taco Bell is the latest to go gourmet, with its Cantina menu items that all cost about five bucks or less. 

Luna: And that's what fast food is gravitating to. I mean, with all the food channels, everyone's a little more savvy about the type of food that they eat, so they want -- they need to step up.

But is Taco Bell essentially copying its fast-casual competitor, Chipotle? Luna thinks so, and so did a lot of her readers who came to a special Taco Bell Cantina menu tasting, but they don't seem to mind.

Luna: Many of them, couldn't help but make the comparison to Chipotle, as it has seasoned white rice, black beans, corn salsa. You know, sounds familiar? And a lot of them loved the flavor profiles, they thought it was better.

Taco Bell beating Chipotle in a taste test? That's right. Nancy Luna says Chipotle is exactly the kind of market that Taco Bell's going after.

Luna: I mean, their still main customer is going to be the young, hungry male who wants, you know, that quesadilla or that crispy taco at midnight. But this one, they might get, you know, a 30-something woman who wants a salad, wants something light.

Customer: …and one bean and rice burrito from, a dollar one.

Taco Bell employee: Cheesy bean and rice burrito?

Customer: Uh-huh. To go.

So are loyal Taco Bell fans excited about that? Tassoula Baird was eating at an Orange County Taco Bell with her husband. Baird says they'll definitely try the new menu.

Tassoula Baird: Anything that could be healthier is good, at least -- especially if it's fresh, if it has fresh ingredients and, you know, it has more vegetables.

At a nearby Chipotle, Ken Watanabe eats a salad with beans and cilantro rice. I show him a picture of the new Taco Bell offerings that look similar to the bowl in front of him.

Ken Watanabe: I mean, I may try it if I'm desperate [laughs].

Watanabe says the new Taco Bell menu probably won't draw him in. He's a Chipotle fan.

Watanabe: The way that they do their food here is a lot better here -- the way that it's all set up -- versus Taco Bell. 

Taco Bell hopes to change that perception, one gourmet meal at a time.

In Irvine, California, I'm Susan Valot for Marketplace.

Taco Bell product development manager Rene Pisciotti adds citrus marinated chicken to a Cantina bowl, part of Taco Bell's new menu which rolls out July 5, 2012.

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