“We listen to our customers, and they were loud and clear: ‘I need a biscuit.’ ”
I’m chatting with Brian Niccol, CEO of Taco Bell, and the topic on the menu is today’s rollout of Taco Bell’s new breakfast items. Waffle Taco, and particularly, the A.M. Crunchwrap, did well: Breakfast went from a standing start to 6% of Taco Bell’s business. But breakfast is the fast-food business’ gold rush, the fastest-growing part of the industry, so there’s more money to be had . . . if you can woo those millennials in before 11 a.m.
“I said to myself, ‘We’re not doing any round biscuit,’ ” Niccol continues, a testament to his and the brand’s commitment to its “food as experience,” Live Mas ethos. All I can think is that it’s a square biscuit, like the infamous squagel. “Everything looks the same. Circles, round sandwiches. Everything tastes the same,” he says, echoing the ad campaign from Deutsch that also rolls out today. Now I am locked in: definitely the Squiscuit. “We can deliver everything you want in a terrific, flaky buttermilk biscuit, in the form of a taco.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I interject, incredulous, my Georgia-public-school-educated brain reduced to a record scratch. “How do you get a biscuit in the form of a taco?” I cannot comprehend the physics of the transformation.
“It’s a biscuit that folds like a taco,” Niccol says patiently, as if this is the most logical thing in the world, a baked good known for its crusty exterior being that pliable. A day later, Taco Bell’s PR representatives send me a massive electronic press kit, and even it buries the reveal of the biscuit taco in all its glory until page 22, as if you should only catch it in glimpses until you’re truly ready to behold the faux-Mexicanization of a Southern breakfast staple in all its fluffy glory. In our post-Cronut world, I should not be surprised by this sort of flour-butter-water alchemy, yet I feel like I’ve been given a riddle to solve, one I could spend the rest of my life pondering.
That’s food as experience, and it’s just the latest indication that Taco Bell is on trend with how to survive in the cutthroat restaurant business. With traditional fast-food chains beset on the high end by Chipotle and its ilk, and disrupted from below by convenience stores improving their food, Taco Bell’s extreme dedication to “igniting the unexpected,” as Niccol says, is keeping it relevant in the eyes of consumers. The division of Yum Brands (which also owns KFC and Pizza Hut) has been on a tear lately and plans to leverage its popularity by opening 2,000 new U.S. locations by 2023—33% more stores than dot the landscape today—an expansion designed to help it achieve its goal of doubling revenues to $14 billion within the next decade.
The biscuit taco can be filled with chicken, sausage, or bacon and eggs. “We give that chicken and biscuit taco the Taco Bell twist,” Niccol says. “The chicken, the breading has tortilla chips to give it that extra crunch. And we serve it with a jalapeno honey. That’s how we hack the high end.” Taco Bell’s obsession with foodie culture—hacking the high end, as Niccol puts it—is fascinating in a world where some of the greatest chefs are obsessed with 1) deconstructing and remixing childhood classics, and 2) starting their own burger and fried chicken chains, both in service of hacking the low end to make it high end. In that context, Cap’n Crunch Delights, a cream-filled doughnut ball coated in cereal crumbs, doesn’t seem like a sign of the apocalypse. It wouldn’t be out of place on a fine-restaurant menu with a sense of humor, just as no one blinked 10 days ago when David Chang, chef and entrepreneur behind the burgeoning Momofuku empire, expressed his envy of Taco Bell’s mobile app that lets customers order ahead and pay for their meals that has been downloaded more than 2 million times. (By the way, Niccol says Cap’n Crunch Delights will be getting a national rollout, because “people do not even have time to make a bowl of cereal.” That’s your sign of the apocalypse. )
How do you create a culture flexible enough to design a breakfast sandwich that’s unlike any other, or recreate the experience of a bowl of cereal? “We’re comfortable taking a lot of little bets,” Niccol says. “Failing is encouraged, as long as it’s quick, cheap, and you don’t repeat it.” He says he also learned a big lesson from Google. “We’re always in beta,” he says. “We’re never done listening, and we’re comfortable iterating.” Winston Binch, Deutsch’s chief digital officer, says, “They’re addicted to trying new things.”
I can only imagine what sorcery awaits us when Taco Bell tackles Breakfast 3.0.