Over the past decade, Chipotle has moved from upstart fast food chain to near-behemoth. Its profits are among the highest of any in the fast-food industry, customer satisfaction is high, and it keeps on growing. Taco Bell, meanwhile, is still the number one kind-of-sort-of Mexican chain in the nation, but it’s not prospering. Chipotle’s meteoric rise has exposed the areas where Taco Bell has been failing, and now the Bell is stepping up to match it, rolling out its new “Cantina Bell” line of upscale menu items.
Known mostly for its inexpensive, quasi-Mexican cuisine and non-traditional campaigns like FourthMeal and the Doritos Locos tacos, Taco Bell’s “Cantina Bell” is a marked change. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias covers more of the changes:
Cantina Bell is branded separately, with its own website and classy photography. The face of the marketing campaign isn’t brash young dudes scarfing burritos—it’s a chef, Lorena Garcia, handcrafting the food. She’s even Latin American (albeit Venezuelan rather than Mexican, but in any case burritos appear to be an authentic product of California), vaguely suggesting an enhanced level of culinary authenticity. In line with the upscale presentation, Cantina Bell’s food is pricier than most Taco Bell offerings, albeit still cheaper than Chipotle. And people seem to like it. Nobody’s claiming this is the greatest meal on the planet, but it’s widely hailed as a great value.
This is more than the story of one company’s repositioning in response to an upstart’s success. It’s a microcosm of the ongoing transformation of the fast-food sector and its efforts to transcend its own lowly origins.
In Washington and New York, people are lunching on salads composed of fresh and often local ingredients at Chop’t, while the similar Mixt Greens expands in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Perhaps most ambitiously, Lyfe Kitchen in Palo Alto, Calif., is attempting to serve an upscale, healthy fast-food menu built on a foundation of no butter; no cream; no white flour or sugar; no high-fructose corn syrup; no trans fats; and all grass-fed, humanely raised animals. The proprietor, Mike Roberts, is a former CEO of McDonald’s, and his aspiration is to take this concept to scale—not just one restaurant or a dozen, but a vast national chain.
Increasingly, homes are turning away from cooking and towards convenient solutions. And increasingly, the fast food industry is showing that it can do better than it has. High-calorie, low-nutrition food may soon be a thing of the past, an, and increasing innovation might mean that families no longer need to feel guilty about turning to the easy, fast-food solution. At the very least, it provides more attractive Taco Bell alternatives for the vegetarian.