Taco Bell has been around for a long time – long enough to have established so many locations that it ranks in what you might call the Fast Food Big Ten. There are something like 7,000 Taco Bells out there in the world.
It was back in 1950 when Glen Bell was trying to make a go of it with Bell’s Burgers and Hot Dogs, but a Mexican joint across the street seemed to always have longer lines. Bell became friends with the folks running the Mitla Café and eventually learned enough to make his own attempt at Mexican.
He experimented with both taco stands he called Taco-Tia and sit down restaurants he called El Taco. In 1962 he gave up on those and opened his first Taco Bell. It was clear he had a hit so he started franchising in 1964. The rest, as they say, is history.
But being around that long in the fast food industry also has its challenges. Yes, there is a whole group of customers who will always come because they want certain core menu items that will always be there – your basic tacos and burritos and quesadillas. But there are also many consumers out there who need a steady flow of new menu items to keep them engaged, or to entice first-timers to take the plunge. Menu innovation in fast food is also a key way that competing chains gain traction in otherwise crowded marketing channels.
At Taco Bell’s Insights Lab, menu innovations come from three primary sources. There’s the problem-solution approach. Problem: How do we make a taco more filling? Solution: The Gordita. Then there’s the hunch, where somebody on the team just has a spontaneous idea that sounds like something worth pursuing. And then there’s keeping a finger on the pulse of consumer demands. If the team hears enough requests for something, they’ll try to come up with an offering.
Lately the team kept hearing that customers wanted something new and different with spicy chicken, which is why Taco Bell will soon roll out something it’s calling the Naked Crispy Chicken Chalupa where the chicken is the shell. That should be interesting.
The chain has had some great hits. Their research was revealing how a lot of people like to put something crunchy on their sandwiches, like potato chips. And when they realized how many customers also liked the flavor of Doritos, the eventual result was the introduction of Doritos Locos Tacos – a new item that sold 100 million units in its first 10 weeks, which is a huge success.
Today I want to take a closer look at one of Taco Bell’s new menu items: Double Stacked Tacos. I took my daughter with me to try these out because she’s had very little in the way of fast food in her life and thought her perspective might be interesting. Here’s how the Double Stacked Tacos stack up along seven dimensions:
1. Overall Concept: Thumbs Down
The idea here is simple: Take your usual crunchy corn-shell taco and then wrap a soft flour taco shell around it and fuse them together with a melted cheese and sauce combination. Described in this way, it doesn’t really sound all that innovative.
The chain came up with three versions: Nacho Crunch, Spicy Sweet, and Cool Habanero. The latter two include new sauces that go with the names. Habanero sauce, which appears in both the Spicy Sweet and Cool Habanero, is mixed in with the melted cheese that fuses the two shells together. The Spicy Sweet also features a new sweet chili sauce.
The advertising seems to focus on these items offering two flavors, but I’m not sure how that applies, unless they’re referring to the fact that you’re getting both a crispy corn shell and a soft flour shell in one item. Otherwise, it’s just a single taco.
Maybe they’re referring to the sauces – one that is spicy and sweet, and one that is cool and spicy with the habanero. If so, then where does that leave nacho crunch? I guess it’s the fact that it has nacho cheese sauce in it, but you expect cheese to be there anyways, right?
The whole concept now begins to feel more like a desperate attempt to find a hit without having really worked out the messaging to go with it.
2. Size: Thumbs Up
My preconceived notion about Taco Bell menu items is that they tend to be on the small side, which is why many of them can be offered at such cheap prices. I was pleasantly surprised to find that these new Double Stacked Tacos were not small. My daughter and I each ordered all three to get the full effect, and she couldn’t finish her third, although I think in the end it was more about her not really liking the Spicy Sweet version.
And although the overall size seemed good, upon closer inspection, we both felt they skimped a bit on the base filling. They all felt a little on the thin side.
3. Price: Thumbs Up
Each Double Stacked Taco was only $1 each, but I think this is an introductory price that will surely only last for a limited time. Still, it was pretty awesome to see six sizeable tacos for us to eat for only $6 and change when you throw in the tax.
4. Flavor: Thumbs Down
The favorite of the three for both of us was the Cool Habanero because I think we both like sour cream. Both of us are pretty sensitive when it comes to spice levels, and neither of us could detect much of anything in the habanero aspect that would even qualify as spicy, so there really wasn’t anything that needed “cooling” down to begin with.
I thought the Nacho Crunch, which has some red tortilla chip bits thrown into it, would be redundant given there’s already a crispy corn shell involved, but because it’s fused to the soft flour shell with cheese, the corn shell has no crunch, so the addition of the chips does make it very crunchy, which we thought was fine, but not exactly earth-shattering.
Neither of us liked the Spicy Sweet much at all. The spicy aspect doesn’t have much heat to it, and the sweet aspect was so sweet it just felt out of place. The words “sweet” and “taco” simply don’t go together.
In the end, we didn’t find any of them anywhere near what we might call “craveable.” Then again, we probably set ourselves up for this because just the night before we had eaten at an authentic independent Mexican restaurant, which can only make Taco Bell seem anemic by comparison.
5. Logistics: Thumbs Down
I had high expectations here, but was left disappointed. Everyone knows the frustration of a crispy taco shattering and completely falling apart as you eat it. I thought that having a soft flour shell fused to it with melted cheese would prevent that. Well, it did prevent the corn shell from breaking apart, but lots of fixings still fell out in the eating process, but I suppose that’s just part of the trouble with the open-topped taco in general.
6. Service: Thumbs Even
We didn’t experience any service problems in making our order (we ate in the restaurant rather than ordering take-out). But there also wasn’t anything special about it, so this one gets a neutral vote from both of us.
7. Venue: Thumbs Down
The local Taco Bell where I live is a co-branded facility with KFC. I can only say that when you’re going out for Mexican, the co-branding doesn’t work. When you walk in the door, the only smell that greets you is that of fried chicken, so you just feel like you’re in the wrong place.
And frankly, there’s just nothing pleasant about a small, overly lit fast food joint in terms of ambience. Then again, I guess that’s not what you’re really there for, right?
Taco Bell’s attempts at menu innovation can be hit or miss. Some of them are just pure gimmicks, such as the Cheesy Roll Up, which is really only a cheese quesadilla rolled up instead of served flat – not exactly the height of creativity.
The chain has also tried just about every mash-up conceivable, which has given birth to items such as the Quesarito and the Quesalupa.
Still, the chain has come up with some bona fide hits, such as the Doritos Locos Tacos mentioned earlier.
When my daughter and I hit the local Taco Bell to try the new Double Stacked Tacos, we had the ambience and flavors of the previous night’s dinner at an authentic independent Mexican restaurant lingering with us, which in hindsight might not have been the fairest setup for a Taco Bell review. Or maybe it was actually the perfect setup.
In the final analysis, we gave Taco Bell’s new Double Stacked Tacos four thumbs down, two thumbs up, and one thumbs even, which in my book means an overall thumbs down. Better luck next time, Taco Bell.