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Taco_Bell_Defy_1_2.jpeg Photo courtesy of Taco Bell
Taco Bell is adding a host of new menu items this year but has been training in the field for months to prepare for the added complexities.

Taco Bell execs are confident about new menu items despite added complexity

Such added complexity, including from a new Cantina Chicken menu, comes with operational risks, such as slower service times.

Like most restaurants, Taco Bell trimmed its menu in the throes of the pandemic, hindered by labor shortages and added channels that pressured operations during an extremely uncertain time. But those challenges are in the rearview mirror and now the company is ready to push hard on the gas, doubling its launches this year versus 2023.

Those launches include an entirely new menu – Cantina Chicken, which brings products like oven-roasted, shredded chicken, purple cabbage, pico de gallo, and white corn taco shells to the more than 7,000 U.S. Taco Bell restaurants across the country.

Such added menu complexity comes with significant risks. It can slow down service, impact accuracy, fluster team members, turn off customers, and even anger franchisees. Chief Food Innovation Officer Liz Matthews said the company’s robust pipeline, however, has energized both franchisees and team members.

“Yes, there is complexity around it, but there is so, so much excitement,” she said during a recent interview. “For us, the idea has to be worth it. We can’t swing at every idea. We’ve got to swing only at 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.”

For the Cantina Chicken menu launch in March, for instance, team members have already been training for months.  

“Right now, our focus is on Cantina, Cantina, Cantina,” Matthews said.

That said, Taco Bell’s new menu news go far deeper than just the Cantina launch, spanning everything from Cheesy Chicken Crispanadas to Cheez-It Crunchwraps to Churro Chillers shakes. The shakes went into test in December and required the addition of a blender in the two participating restaurants, for instance. They will go into a bigger test this year and could require all restaurants to add that new piece of equipment, or even a different piece of equipment.

“Blenders were used in test. Could it be something else as we launch nationally? Maybe. There’s work to be done,” Matthews said. “But while we sort these things out, the idea has our franchisees really excited. (Shakes) are a ticket add-on, a special trip intent, an afternoon trip, a late-night trip. This is a big idea, and the fans are asking for it and our franchisees are excited about it.”

One of the surest signs of franchisee content is their willingness to build more restaurants and Taco Bell’s franchisees have been doing just that as of late. The company recently shared that it is on track to operate 10,000 U.S.-based restaurants “in the coming years,” and exited 2022 with record site registrations for new units. This bullish growth comes as Taco Bell delivers “industry-leading” margins of 24% and average unit volumes of about $1.95 million, according to Technomic Ignite data. And, complexity aside, executives are confident these new menu items will continue to provide a strong tailwind for the brand.

“For us to grow at the clip we want, you have to think about all the functions and be a connector,” CMO Taylor Montgomery said during an interview. “That starts with a clear vision of how you want to grow and then connecting the pieces. How do we make it work for operations, how do we make it work financially, how do we think about digital and technology and all of the things we have to create an amazing experience where people will want to add us on their journey.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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