Chef Lorena Garcia wasn’t shy about telling Taco Bell that she didn’t like its chicken.
On a visit to Los Angeles Wednesday during a nationwide tour to promote the new Cantina Bell menu she developed for the Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell, which rolls out nationally July 5 , Garcia explained that her goal is to shake things up a bit in the quick-service world.
Known for her appearances on television shows such as “The Biggest Loser,” “America’s Next Great Restaurant” and this year’s “Top Chef Masters,” as well as multiple syndicated shows on networks throughout Latin America, Garcia owns three restaurants in Miami and is active in anti-obesity efforts that target children and schools.
When Taco Bell came to her two years ago asking for her help in designing new menu options that would bring the 50-year-old chain back to its roots, Garcia said she was initially skeptical.
After tasting everything on Taco Bell’s menu, she admitted that she didn’t like some things. “The chicken was really, really spiced up,” she said. It also became clear that Taco Bell’s expertise was in “cheesy and sour creamy,” she added.
Garcia said that although the chain had the system of portioning and consistency down pat, they had, perhaps, lost sight of the food.
“I didn’t want to compromise my ideas,” said Garcia. “This was a risky situation for me. But that risk, that challenge, became an opportunity.”
So Garcia borrowed from her mother’s recipe book and developed a series of menu items for Taco Bell that attempted to elevate the menu with options and new ingredients that will appeal to customers who want to “eat more responsibly,” she said.
The Cantina Bowl, for example, includes grilled citrus-and-herb marinated chicken with rice, black beans, shredded romaine lettuce, pico de gallo, guacamole and roasted-corn salsa topped with creamy cilantro dressing. The bowl can be made with steak or vegetarian, and the ingredients can also be wrapped in a burrito.
The dish evokes the sort of option consumers might see at the fast-casual Chipotle Mexican Grill — except Taco Bell’s version is less than $5. The connection is particularly ironic, given that Garcia served as a judge with Chipotle founder Steve Ells on “America’s Next Great Restaurant.”
Garcia said Chipotle couldn’t have been further from her mind when she developed the Taco Bell recipes. “The last thing I had on my mind was another business or competitor. That’s their business,” she said, waving toward Taco Bell’s marketing team. “Chipotle has been in business for 17 years, and Taco Bell has been in business 50 years. Steve [Ells] is in another category.”
Unlike Chipotle, however, Taco Bell’s new items will not be cooked in house. All cooked items, like the beans and chicken, will arrive in restaurants already cooked, but Taco Bell staffers will cut fresh cilantro to mix into the pico de gallo, for example, and assemble dishes to order.
The Cantina Bell rollout next month is just the beginning of a series of changes, said Ellie Doty, Taco Bell’s senior marketing manager. She said more dishes and ingredients from Garcia will likely be added into the mix, though she could not reveal what is to come.
Some things that didn’t make it into last year’s test may be revisited. Various versions of corn tortillas, for example, appealed to some consumers, but others “thought it was raw,” Doty said. And a taco was tested but was found to be “too messy,” and the cool ingredients on top made it get cold more quickly, said Doty.
While Taco Bell is somewhat concerned about the higher price point — only a taco salad has neared the $5 ceiling so far — that didn’t appear to have an impact in test markets, where sales exceeded expectations, said Doty.
Garcia is doing some of the training for the menu rollout personally in rallies around the country.
The chef said she appreciates that many customers, like her young nephew, will still come to Taco Bell to get their fill of “20 Doritos Locos Tacos — as an appetizer.” But now those who want something different will have other options, she added. “I think you should have a choice.”