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Taco Bell Disha Hot - Hot Sauce.png Photo courtesy of Taco Bell
This year, Disha Hot will get its own sauce packet exclusively at Taco Bell.

Here’s what Taco Bell looks for with its menu collaborations

Taco Bell has partnered with major brands like Doritos for years, but the restaurant chain is picking up the pace of its partnerships with smaller brands, too, noting it can learn something from them.

Last year, Yellowbird and Truff’s were well-known sauce brands in their respective home markets of Austin, Texas, and Southern California. Now, their brand recognition likely extends beyond those areas. Well beyond.

The two companies were targeted by Taco Bell for Nacho Fries collaborations, first with Truff’s in late 2022 for a Hotter Hot Sauce option. At the time, this marked Taco Bell’s first partnership with another brand for a new sauce. Six months later, the quick-service giant tapped Yellowbird for Yellowbird Nacho Fries, featuring the sauce company’s spicy habanero ranch flavor.

Taco Bell is certainly no stranger to menu mashups – think Doritos Locos Taco or Cap’n Crunch Delights, for example. But the past two years have brought forward partnerships with companies that aren’t such household names, like last year’s collaboration with Los Angeles-based bagel food truck concept Yeastie Boys. This year’s collaboration schedule looks to be busier still and includes:

  • Cheez-It: The Cheez-It Crunchwrap, featuring a real Cheez-It cracker 16 times bigger than a standard Cheez-It cracker, will be available nationwide after a successful test in 2022.
  • Tajín: Taco Bell is testing a menu with the sweet and spicy flavors of Tajín, including a Tajín Crunchy Taco, Tajín Twists and Tajín Strawberry Freeze.
  • Secret Aardvark: The Portland-based company’s Serrabanero sauce will be added to Taco Bell’s Nacho Fries.
  • Disha Hot: Musician Omar Apollo’s family’s hot sauce, Disha Hot, is a secret recipe that has been passed down for generations. This year, Disha Hot will get its own sauce packet exclusively at Taco Bell.
  • Salt & Straw: Portland-based ice cream company Salt & Straw and Taco Bell are testing an Ice Cream Chocolate Taco, made with hand pressed waffle cones, cinnamon ancho ice cream dipped in single origin chocolate, studded with toasted brown rice, and served with sweet sauces and dips.
  • Beekeeper Coffee: Beekeeper Coffee is known for ready-to-drink cold brew coffee and latte flavors all featuring a signature drop of honey. Taco Bell is partnering with Beekeeper Coffee to create and test a Horchata Cold Brew Latte.

How Taco Bell identifies the right partners

Collaborating with iconic brands like Doritos or Cheez-Its may be a no-brainer, but what does it take to become a brand partner if you’re not on as big of a map? According to Liz Matthews, Taco Bell’s chief food innovation officer, it takes mutual respect and trust.

“We’re not just going to work with anybody. The partnerships we’ve done, we knew the team as people and loved what they did, and they loved what we did,” she said during a recent interview. “That’s when you get really beautiful collaborations. It’s not a process, but more like starting a friendship to see if you like each other and then growing that relationship over months.”

Of course, the idea has to be worth it – operationally, financially, etc. It also has to fit the unique DNA of Taco Bell, like the Horchata Cold Brew Latte intends to do by taking inspiration from the signature, cinnamon-flavored Mexican beverage.

“The idea has to be worth it. We can’t swing at every idea; we’ve got to swing at only the big ideas and make sure we are supporting our team members and making sure their life in the restaurants is as easy as possible,” Matthews said.

As Taco Bell’s chief marketing officer, Taylor Montgomery looks at potential partnerships through a slightly different lens. Specifically, does the company share Taco Bell’s values? Are they also “cultural rebels,” as Taco Bell aspires to be.

“In the food space, who are the cultural rebels that can push us to places we couldn’t get to on our own? Who can we learn from and who can inspire us? Once we identify them, we have to experiment and be OK to not get it right right away,” he said during a recent interview. “The Cheez-It Crunchwrap took us two years to get right.”

Montgomery adds that it’s important for Taco Bell to keep a close eye on smaller, creative companies, which is why the company’s partnerships seem to be picking up.

“We believe they can help us be better. We can learn something from them. Take Beekeeper. If I’m honest, we could be doing better in coffee, so what can we learn from them?” Sometimes smaller companies have it more simple,” he said. “Sometimes big companies, we can overcomplicate things.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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