Taco Bell has been called a “bully” by some in light of its legal tussle over the “Taco Tuesday” trademark with the much, much smaller Taco John’s. And no doubt it could be considered a bit of a David and Goliath-like situation; Taco Bell has over 7,000 U.S. restaurants and about $13 billion in sales, while Taco John’s has about 375 restaurants and about $440 million in sales.
But it’s worth noting that Taco Bell has also provided a bit of a boost to several smaller brands through its product collaboration strategy. Sure, that strategy includes other giant companies like Doritos and Cinnabon, but the company has partnered with plenty of smaller brands as well, likely putting some of them on a bigger radar. Let’s take a look at some of Taco Bell’s menu collabs from throughout the past 10 years. Well, 11 years, because we’d be remiss to not mention the Doritos Locos Tacos launch, which came in 2012. That innovation quickly became the brand’s top-selling product ever (until the Nacho Fries came along in 2018) and drove follow-ups like the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos and the Fiery Doritos Locos Tacos, both introduced in 2013. That same year, Taco Bell teamed up with Focus Brands’ CPG business to launch Cinnabon Delights.
In 2014, Taco Bell continued to extend its Doritos Locos Taco line with a Spicy Chicken Cool Ranch version. That was also the year the chain launched its breakfast daypart, with a menu that included a Greek yogurt option in partnership with Three Happy Cows, a premium boutique brand based out of Dallas that ceased operations after its founder was convicted of arson. (Off topic: He was sentenced to five years in federal prison for setting his manufacturing plant on fire).
Anyway, the year 2015 brought more collaborative innovation, including a line with Sriracha hot sauce and Cap’n Crunch Delights – warm pastries filled with Cap’n Crunch Crunch Berries cereal and filled with icing. This is also when the brand’s Snapple Lemonade Freeze came out.
Fast forward to 2018 – a pivotal year for Taco Bell’s innovation pipeline as it yielded a new Cravings Menu, a partnership with Blue Point Brewing Company to boost the company’s fledgling Cantina menu, a Taco Bell tortilla chip retail line inspired by its sauces, and, most importantly, its Nacho Fries. Those fries, developed in-house, quickly became the most successful product launch in the company’s history and have since created a palatable canvas for several follow-up menu launches and collaborations.
Of course, the innovation wheel grinded to a halt in 2020, and Taco Bell trimmed its menu in August of that year to simplify operations during the pandemic. At the time, the company noted this new streamlined menu would create more room for new products and that is exactly what happened once the innovation wheel began to churn again.
In 2021, Taco Bell introduced Loaded Taco Fries and began testing things like the cheesy double beef burrito. On the partnership front, Taco Bell teamed up with Southern California truffle hot sauce brand Truff to test Loaded Truff Nacho Fries and the Loaded Truff Fries Burrito. This test marked the first time Taco Bell partnered with another brand for a new sauce – notable considering that Taco Bell’s sauces have plenty of brand equity on their own. The test must have been successful, as the Truff products were introduced nationwide in August 2021 for a limited time. And, the two brands partnered again in October 2022 with the return of Loaded Truff Nacho Fries for a limited time.
Indeed, 2022 was a busy year for innovative collaborations. In February, Taco Bell partnered with Klondike to bring back the Klondike Choco Taco in 20 locations for a limited time. Klondike discontinued the retail product in 2022 after nearly 40 years, though the company has teased on social media that it may not be gone for good. In June, Taco Bell teamed up with the Kellogg Company to launch a Big Cheez-It Tostada and a Big Cheez-It Crunchwrap. The limited-time offers sold out in less than a week.
In August 2022, Taco Bell collaborated with New York-based bakery Milk Bar for a limited-time test of Strawberry Bell Truffles. And, in September 2022, Taco Bell teamed up with Beyond Meat to test a Beyond Carne Asada Steak, featured in a quesadilla.
Enter 2023. So far, Taco Bell has teamed up with Los Angeles-based bagel food truck concept Yeastie Boys to conceptualize a mashup breakfast menu in the market, and also introduced Yellowbird Nacho Fries nationwide for a limited time with Austin, Texas-based Yellowbird Hot Sauce.
We tried to get more information about Taco Bell’s menu collaboration strategy, but the chain is keeping its cards close to its chest on this one. And for good reason; these types of partnerships create buzzy headlines, intrigued consumers and, likely, competitive advantages (as true menu innovation tends to do). As for the brands Taco Bell has collaborated with? Both Truff and Yellowbird had prominent exhibit spaces (across from each other!) at the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago and – anecdotally – a steady stream of curious visitors. No doubt some of that curiosity came from their brand names making headlines, courtesy of Taco Bell.
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]