We’ll answer that question shortly. First some background.
Last week we had an interesting opportunity to visit the corporate headquarters of Taco Bell. We don’t eat there, nor do we recommend Taco Bell’s food to the Fooducate community.
However, millions of Americans eat there, every day. So when Missy Nelson, Taco Bell’s head dietitian, reached out and invited us to come visit and see firsthand some innovations, we agreed. We flew down to Orange County, California on our own dime; Fooducate did not receive any compensation to visit or write about Taco Bell. This was all about curiosity, keeping an open mind, and wanting to learn.
Arriving at Taco Bell headquarters, we were greeted by Missy and two Taco Bell PR executives. Before we could talk about nutrition and ask some hard questions, we were walked through the history hall, where murals hang depicting company milestones. Here are some stats:
- Glen Bell founded Taco Bell after he realized his burger joint could not compete with McDonald’s.
- Today Taco Bell has 6,500 branches, almost all in the US.
- 85 percent of the locations are franchises.
- 165,000 “team members” work for Taco Bell. Many are teens (but less than 50%)
- Taco Bell serves 36,000,000 people every week.
- 70% of orders are drive through.
- The main demographic is aged 18-34, almost equal male/female.
- Taco Bell known as a late night brand, with locations opened past midnight.
- Taco Bell was the first quick serve restaurant to offer free refills. (How much of an effect did that have on the obesity situation in America. . . ?)
Now back to the question at hand – Why a dietitian at Taco Bell?
Missy explained that if she were to open a private practice, she could influence the lives of hundreds of people, but just one change at Taco Bell can have an impact on millions.
What kind of changes?
- A gradual 20% sodium reduction over the last 6 years. Taco Bell is continually working to reduce this number even more.
- Creating a minimum nutrition standard for all Taco Bell suppliers.
- Making guacamole a standard addition to menu items. Aside from the southwest, Taco Bell had to “educate” many consumers to learn to enjoy avocado.
- Removal of trans-fats from all menu items (except for 2 desserts).
- Removal of palm oil from ingredients (a work in progress).
- Addition of healthier menu items such as the Cantina Bell
We were shown the innovation kitchen, where Missy works with chefs and marketing people to come up with new products. A recent example is the Waffle Taco, a breakfast item that took about a year to develop.
Adjacent to the kitchen is a sensory lab where consumer panelists try new items and then respond to questions, classic marketing research.
After taking a look at the facilities, we sat down with the head chef Heather, Missy, and the PR team for a bit of Q&A:
Fooducate: Why can’t you change like Chipotle and improve your ingredients?
Taco Bell: Like most quick serve restaurants, we are based on value and convenience. Chipotle is not. (Our translation: You can’t expect quality ingredients when your customer demographic values low prices and taste over nutrition and sustainability.)
Fooducate: Why aren’t there any turkey products at taco Bell?
Taco Bell: The customer isn’t ready yet, but maybe in the future.
Fooducate: What are you doing to reduce sugary drink consumption?
Taco Bell: Like sodium reduction, this is a journey. We offer sweetened zero calorie and medium calorie options, as well as non-sweetened brewed iced-tea. At the end of the day, we need to serve what our customers want.
Fooducate: Do you sell energy drinks?
Taco Bell: No. (This is interesting because the core customer demographic is a big energy drink consumer).
Fooducate: Why is Taco Bell adding hours and opening up for breakfast?
Taco Bell: We realized that there is an opportunity to serve our customers in the early a.m. hours with breakfast options. This move will add 3 to 4 new jobs at each location!
Fooducate: You emphasize bringing value to all your stakeholders. Why not increase your employee’s wages to something that they can actually live off?
(We did not get a straight answer to this question.)
So…what have we learned from this visit?
Corporations may be evil, but people are nice. All the people working at Taco Bell’s headquarters (or as they call it, restaurant support center) seem to be enjoying their work and believe they are contributing to continual improvement.
Yet despite the well-intentioned work of Missy and other dietitians at fast food establishments, improvements in the menu items only manage to take them up a tiny notch – from unhealthy to slightly less unhealthy. Whether this is a worthwhile pursuit can be debated. A systemic approach to food production and consumption is beyond the scope of any single dietitian.
While an occasional outing to Taco Bell won’t kill anyone, it’s healthier to eat as many home cooked meals as possible. That is not something any fast food chain would like you to do.