Before Taco Bell launched Nacho Fries, there were shoestring and crinkle cut versions of the fried spud that never made it past the test phase for the Southern California-based quick-service chain.
“We had a lot of attempts at fries over the years,” global chief food innovation officer Liz Matthews said. “Honestly, it never really made sense.”
After all, Taco Bell is all about the twist — taking classic Mexican foods like tacos and adding the chain’s own innovative spin. Think gorditas and chalupas.
Going with decidedly un-Mexican fries seems off brand. Still, Matthews and her team, responsible for the wildly popular Doritos Locos Tacos, were determined to get the QSR staple on the menu.
“We don’t give up on things,” Matthews said.
Each iteration wasn’t quite right. She said the chain could have easily gone with shoestring or crinkle fries, but they didn’t. “It was good, but we wanted great.”
“How do we take what we do best, and put that Taco Bell twist on it? That’s when the seasoning came in,” she said.
Like the nacho cheese-dusted Doritos Locos Tacos, sprinkling the fries with seasoning seemed like the right direction, but it had to have good heat, Matthews said. The team eventually settled on a proprietary blend of “Mexican spices.”
The experimentation didn’t stop there.
The team, based in Irvine, Calif., decided to pair the fries with the brand’s famed nacho cheese sauce for dipping.
Matthews was skeptical, at first. Then, she took a bite.
“There’s nothing odd about this. This is absolutely right,” she said.
It had all the hallmarks of a wacky but craveable Taco Bell food, only this time the chain was adding a Mexican twist to a classic American burger side dish.
After the usual market testing, the chain debuted Nacho Fries on the Dollar Cravings menu Jan. 25, 2018 at about 7,000 restaurants. The chain, beloved by Generations Y and Z, called the fries “the most-anticipated menu item release of the year.”
And they were only charging a buck. The wild enthusiasm led to record-breaking numbers. In the first five weeks, restaurants sold more than 53 million orders. One out of every three orders included fries. It ousted Doritos Locos Tacos from its perch as the chain’s best-selling new product.
“We never dreamed it would be the largest product launch ever,” Matthews said.
After three tours of duty on the menu in less than 18 months, the obsession hasn’t stopped.
When fries are on the menu, they are part of one in four orders. Taco Bell fans are using it as a side dish or asking order-takers to stuff their burritos with fries.
Though it’s not a permanent menu item, Taco Bell sees Nacho Fries as a nimble LTO that can inspire other items. For example, in late February, Taco Bell debuted Steak Rattlesnake Fries, a plate of Nacho Fries topped with pieces of steak, slices of jalapeños and two sauces: nacho cheese sauce and creamy jalapeño sauce.
Another version of this dish will debut at the end of the year but packed with much more heat. Matthews said Reaper Ranch Fries, in test last year, will be drizzled with a sauce made of a blend of ranch dressing and Carolina Reaper — the hottest chili pepper in the world.
“We’re really just having fun with this,” Matthews said.
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