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Taco Bell’s ‘First Meal’ set to debut

Chain to roll out breakfast in 10 states, test ‘Cantina’ menu

Taco Bell is scheduled to begin rolling out its long-awaited breakfast platform — or “First Meal” — next week in about 750 locations in 10 states, the first wave of what the chain promises will be a year of change and innovation.

In addition to the morning daypart rollout next week, the Irvine, Calif.-based quick-service chain is also beginning tests of a new Cantina menu in about 150 stores. The menu includes an upgraded tier of higher quality options developed with the assistance of celebrity chef Lorena Garcia and could position Taco Bell against fast-casual Mexican brands.

Both are moves that Brian Niccol, Taco Bell’s chief marketing and innovation officer, said will shift consumer perceptions of the brand toward experience and quality.

“Taco Bell will always stand for a great value proposition,” he said. “But we will try to stand out for the experience, for the flavors of the food and innovation. We’re dialing up our relevance for an expanding palate.”

Last year Taco Bell took a hard hit after a consumer lawsuit challenged the credibility of the chain’s seasoned beef. Officials with parent company Yum! Brands Inc. have outlined an aggressive plan for 2012 that will include what it calls breakthrough products, such as the Doritos Locos Taco made with a Nacho Cheese Dorito shell, and the addition of breakfast and the new chef-inspired Cantina menu.

While some observers have suggested that Taco Bell has fallen into the shadow of limited-service category forerunner Chipotle Mexican Grill, Niccol said Taco Bell “has no interest in being Chipotle.”

“There are some forums and flavors that have been introduced that we have every right to participate in like burrito bowls,” he said. “We can do that and be a better value.”

Breakfast has been a rapidly growing category in recent years, accounting for about 12 percent of total restaurant industry sales, generating about $42 billion annually, according to Chicago-based market research firm Technomic Inc.

Watch a commercial for First Meal; story continues below

Niccol said the chain has conquered the late night daypart with its Fourth Meal addition and now it wants to steal marketshare from the growing number of quick-service chains offering breakfast, including category leader McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s.

A look inside the menu

Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu includes 11 new items that aim for “traditional American classic breakfast flavors,” said Jahna Preble, the chain’s manager of product development.

Items include four types of burritos: a classic steak-and-egg burrito for a recommended $1.99; and a Grande Skillet burrito, with sausage crumbles, cheese and egg for $2.79. Two smaller burritos are on the 99-cent menu, including egg with either bacon or sausage.

In addition, the menu features a Johnsonville sausage-and-egg wrap for $1.79, a grilled item similar to the popular Crunchwrap Supreme, though without the crunchy tortilla inside and smaller to make it more portable.

The menu also includes Tropicana orange juice and Seattle’s Best coffee, including proprietary flavored iced-coffee options — mocha and vanilla, both for $1.99 — which will be available all day.

View a slideshow of the new breakfast menu

A crispy hash brown patty is also available in combination meals, priced at $3.99 with a beverage.

The menu will also include Cinnabon Delights, another proprietary item, which are cinnamon-roll-flavored mini donuts filled with cream and dusted with cinnamon sugar. Four bite-sized Cinnabon Delights come in a bag for $1.49.

More items are coming, including better-for-you options, said Preble. Taco Bell plans to test oatmeal and yogurt parfaits, for example, as well as more breakfast sandwiches.

Originally, the chain tested more spicy items, but found consumers preferred milder flavors at breakfast, with the option of customizing their meals with taco sauce themselves, said Niccol.

“We made the mistake originally by trying to go down the road of spicy or unique,” he said.

Niccol said the breakfast platform will likely be available throughout the chain’s 5,800 U.S. locations by January 2015.

He declined to give estimates on the sales impact of the additional daypart, saying it was “an incremental daypart.”

Hours for breakfast will vary by location, with most stores adding service hours between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Testing more upscale ‘Cantina’ items

The Cantina menu test will begin next week in Louisville, Ky.; and Fresno and Bakersfield in California.

Previously called the “Chef’s Signature” line, the Cantina menu is a separate platform that would be offered in addition to Taco Bell’s core of favorites.

Garcia, who is originally from Venezuela, developed a line of ingredients that aim for more broadly defined latin flavors, with a more simple focus on quality ingredients, said Elizabeth Matthews, Taco Bell’s senior director of food & beverage innovation.

The line includes new ingredients, such as black beans, roasted corn salsa, romaine lettuce and a cilantro-lime dressing. Chicken has been reformulated with a light citrus marinade, and the chain’s guacamole and pico di gallo have been tweaked with new seasonings and fresh cilantro.

Guests can choose a burrito bowl, burrito or three-taco combination with a selection of proteins, for example.

The new items range in price from a recommended $4.79 to $4.99, depending on the protein, creating a more-premium tier on the menu.

And unlike most of Taco Bell’s other menu items traditionally, the Cantina menu bowls, burritos and tacos do not include cheese, Matthews noted, saying, “It doesn’t need it.”

Garcia’s input into the new menu line is noted on packaging. Wrappers also include a guarantee, asking guests, “Does this burrito make the cut?”

If guests are dissatisfied, they can get another item or their money back – which Niccol said has always been the case, but now will be promoted.

Niccol said Taco Bell’s target audience of 18- to 20-something men are ready for the more premium flavors of Garcia’s menu, which is closer to the offerings of fast-casual Mexican players while still positioned for value.

“Where else can you get a burrito bowl like this for $5 or less,” he said.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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