How Taco Bell Won ‘The Restaurant Wars’

How Taco Bell Won ‘The Restaurant Wars’
How Taco Bell Won ‘The Restaurant Wars’

In the 1993 movie Demolition Man, a seemingly ludicrous prediction was made: Taco Bell would emerge as the sole survivor of “the restaurant wars.” Fast forward to today, and while Taco Bell isn’t monopolizing the landscape, the essence of that prediction isn’t far off.

The dystopian movie portrays a fictional future society where Taco Bell has become the only surviving restaurant chain, dominating the culinary landscape entirely. The movie implies Taco Bell achieved this dominance through a series of conflicts and corporate takeovers called “the restaurant wars.”

The film uses Taco Bell’s dominance as a backdrop to explore commercialism, corporate power, and cultural homogenization. While Taco Bell is indeed everywhere, and the percentage of chain restaurants (versus independents) has grown dramatically over the last 50 years, consumer restaurant choices have grown, if anything, more diverse.

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As we outlined in “Delivering the Digital Restaurant: Your Roadmap to the Future of Food” “Chapter 2: Our Tastes Are Changing,” America has become an increasingly diverse country. And America’s diversity in taste has increased right along with its diversity in backgrounds.

The success of Mediterranean chain CAVA, or indeed of Taco Bell itself, is almost unthinkable to the America of 1993, which was still very much a hamburger and fries nation. The ridiculousness of the idea of ​​ethnic cuisine taking over made Taco Bell the ideal candidate for the winner of the restaurant wars. Surely such a chain could only win through corporate maneuvering?

Restaurants Are Adopting Taco Bell Traits

So, if Taco Bell is clearly not the only restaurant in America, in what ways has it won? Other restaurants are becoming more like Taco Bell. Let’s explore how Taco Bell not only survived but thrived by pioneering changes that are now benchmarks in the restaurant industry.

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Hallmarks of the Taco Bell brand include the early adoption of new marketing mediums like social media, the first mobile ordering app among major fast food brands, an extensive menu made of imaginatively recombining seven ingredients,* an efficient back-of-house designed around a manufacturing assembly process, the use of centralized cooking, and item form factors and packaging designed for off-premise consumption. Let’s look at how other restaurants have adopted each of these aspects.

Social Media Marketing

Taco Bell was an early adopter of social media marketing. From its Facebook page to its Twitter feed, Taco Bell releases daily doses of branding in a funny and engaging way. Taco Bell was the first major brand to use Snapchat. Taco Bell instituted social listening early on, using Netbase software to monitor what consumers were saying about the brand and its competitors. This TMZ-style newsroom enables the brand to comment in a timely manner on relevant topics.

Restaurants today lean heavily into social media marketing. In fact, nearly half of consumers surveyed reported trying a restaurant for the first time because of a restaurant’s social media post. Thirty-six percent of diners report following restaurants on social media.

Mobile Ordering

Although not the first restaurant to introduce online ordering (pizza restaurants were the first restaurants to embrace e-commerce), Taco Bell was the first major fast-food chain to roll out an app. As early as 2012, it was reforming its website to accommodate online ordering.

It is unthinkable for a restaurant today to not have an online ordering presence. All but the most experiential dine-in restaurants offer at least online ordering for pickup.

Extensive Menu Using Limited Ingredients

*Taco Bell restaurants actually use many more than seven ingredients, but so the joke goes. Jokes are funny because they are based on some form of truth. And truly, the Taco Bell menu is incredible in its ability to produce very different items out of a limited set of ingredients.

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Virtual restaurant brands—those brands that exist only digitally and often operate out of underlying host kitchens (other restaurants)—use this same philosophy today. What entire menus can be created out of ingredients already on the line? Andre Vener, of DogHaus, has said its Bad-Ass Breakfast Burrito brand required the addition of just one item: a tortilla. Everything else in the burritos is already in the restaurant for other menu items.

Assembly Make-Lines for Systematic Production

Old-school kitchens had stations. The stations produced food that went through the pass. The expo, on the other side of the pass, collected items to combine them into a meal and hand them off to the server.

Modern kitchens run make lines. These lines are stocked with prepared ingredients, and workers pull from the ingredients to assemble items. Items in an order are created off the same line, in sequence, and grouped together at the end of the line.

Use of Centralized Cooking

Very little cooking is done inside a Taco Bell. As mentioned above, the restaurants are primarily assembly points of distribution, not cooking points of distribution. Many of the ingredients in a Taco Bell are prepared elsewhere, in centralized manufacturing plants that have significant scale, enabling them to afford automation that would not make sense at the restaurant level. While automation is getting less expensive with ongoing technological innovation, there are still some processes that just make more sense when done centrally.

For example, Steve Ells’ new concept, Kernel, uses a centralized commissary to prep ingredients, then a lighter touch closer to the consumer at the restaurant. Wonder also has a large commissary in New Jersey that is supporting all its restaurants in the Northeast through prepped and even par-cooked ingredients. Many of the newer brands are using this approach to generate the benefits of scale before they can access a national supply chain that will custom-make their ingredients the way vendors do for Taco Bell.

Novel Electric-Based Equipment

At the time it was rolled out to the Taco Bell restaurant fleet, sous-vide water baths were not the popular consumer appliance they are today. Today sous-vide is known for its upscale use in haute cuisine—Thomas Keller wrote an entire cookbook “Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide” in 2008. But back in the 1990s, when Taco Bell was preparing to win the restaurant wars, they called This innovation “the rethermalizer” to explain to restaurant workers exactly what it was for. In fact, a Taco Bell kitchen does not have many of the gas-based equipment pieces most people think make up a kitchen: like a flattop, a salamander, an oven, or a six-burner stove.

Modern restaurant concepts, like Kernel and Wonder, often use impingement ovens, or other types of electric-based cooking like smart convection ovens, sous vide water baths, and air fryers. These newer equipment types are preferred by early adopter environmental cities like Berkeley, but they are also easier to install, dramatically reducing or eliminating the amount of black iron required in a restaurant. They are also easier to automate. Like cars, it turns out that gas is difficult to monitor and modulate, but electricity is easy.

Items & Packaging Optimized for Off-Premises

A significant majority of quick-service restaurant sales go through the drive-thru. This means meal consumption is inherently off-premises. Whether guests consume their meal in the car or at a destination, they are definitely not consuming it in the restaurant when they go through a drive-thru. Because of this, drive-thru restaurants like Taco Bell were early innovators in packaging that would protect the food on its journey to its destination.

Even dine-in restaurants, known for their beautiful plating, have started to review their carry-out packaging. As off-premises consumption through pickup and delivery grows, the packaging that carries restaurant food to consumers has become more important than a mere vessel. Previously, this packaging was often reserved for leftovers, assuming the consumer would heat and replate at home for a subsequent meal.

Today, consumers are more likely to eat directly out of the carryout packaging, and to expect that their meals will be hot, fresh, and as chef intended. This means packaging is increasingly designed for transit, and sometimes goes all the way to creating a great unboxing experience. Packaging is no longer a plain brown paper box, and instead has been created to convey the brand in a box. Sometimes, this means a plain brown bowl—as in the case of Chipotle, where the bowl conveys its dedication to the environment. Sometimes, this means a heavily inked gift-quality box—as in the case of Din Tai Fung, where the art conveys its premium brand.

Plant-forward Eating

Taco Bell also made plant-based eating possible at restaurants before it was cool. Vegetarians across America will tell you they survived college on bean burritos. The brand now offers “Veggie Mode” on its self-order kiosks. Veggie Mode automatically converts all items to a vegetarian version. A section of the menu called “Veggie Cravings” offers classic favorites in vegetarian format. Vegetarian orders were so common that “sub beans for beef” was a button on the POS when one of us (Meredith) worked for the brand in 2011.

Recently, plant-forward concepts, like sweetgreen and Salad and Go, have been growing quickly. Chipotle, one of the fastest growing restaurants in the industry, offers “sofritas,” a protein made of tofu. And even major national burger chains, like Carl’s Jr. and Burger King, have launched products replicating a burger experience with plant-based ingredients.

How Taco Bell Won the Restaurant Wars

Everything in Demolition Man is safe, sterile, and scalable through systems and automation. Taco Bell has also used systems and automation to achieve safe scalability. These tools are increasingly being applied by other restaurant concepts.

As Americans shift toward greater prepared meal consumption, finding ways to create healthy restaurant food, conveniently available, at an affordable price is paramount for any restaurant not solely focused on experiential dining in.

The future of the restaurant industry lies in its ability to integrate technology not as a mere tool, but as an integral part of the dining experience. From automated kitchens to AI-driven customer service, the possibilities are endless. The restaurant industry must view technology as a cornerstone of customer service and operational efficiency. Let Taco Bell’s story inspire your strategy, keeping innovation at the forefront to meet and exceed guest expectations.

Meredith Sandland and Carl Orsbourn are co-authors of “Delivering the Digital Restaurant: Your Roadmap to the Future of Food” and “Delivering the Digital Restaurant: The Path to Digital Maturity.” After each spent 20-plus years in corporate strategy and retail food, Meredith and Carl concluded that food in America was changing. They left their corporate jobs in search of innovation that would transform the restaurant industry. Ghost kitchens, virtual brands, digital marketing, the gig economy and lean operations are at the heart of the future they envision. Meredith is the CEO of Empower Delivery, software that powers delivery-centric kitchens. Carl is the co-founder of Juicer and an advisor to restaurant groups and technology solutions. Subscribe to their newsletter and podcast at deliveringthedigitalrestaurant.com.

 
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