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Taco Bell’s New Counters Mean Something Totally Different In The U.S. Than Asia

Taco Bells will soon have a new, lower counter. You may think it comes from Chipotle. In reality, it was born from a much different place.

By now, you’ve likely read a tongue-in-cheek story about the new Taco Bell Cantina restaurant that opens next week in Chicago’s trendy taco capital, Wicker Park. The new design–complete with graffiti art, plywood walls, and a menu that features appetizers and booze-loaded Mountain Dew freezes–is a small but sizable bet for Taco Bell. They plan to open as many as “a couple hundred” of these stores in the next 10 years in urban markets, according to Chief Development Officer, Meredith Sandland, which represents about 10% of their total plan for expansion.

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But the Cantina’s most radical impact on Taco Bell probably won’t be the shareable appetizers, or those alcoholic drinks–neither of which are planned for Taco Bell’s suburban drive-thrus at this time. The bigger deal is actually the Taco Bell Cantina’s new counter, which is built low, with one glass wall that allows customers to watch food be prepared as they eat. This design will likely make it to all Taco Bell stores eventually. (And while that counter doesn’t look like much, operationally, it requires a complete rethink on where food and containers are stored in the kitchen, because traditionally, Taco Bell has hidden those things in overhead cabinets, which further impact the view.)

It’s easy to figure out why Taco Bell is moving toward an open kitchen line. Like Chipotle, or even Subway, they want to offer transparency in their food preparation. But in reality, Taco Bell, internationally, had already used a kitchen of this design for a whole different reason. And the U.S. team snagged it from them.

“We have stores like this in Korea, Japan, and the U.K.,” Sandland explains. “International created it because, when you enter a country where they don’t know what Mexican food is, they have to show the ingredients. And the customer says, ‘Oh, I eat rice, beans, and tomatoes.’ In the U.S., we thought it was an excellent opportunity to be transparent with our consumer, and share our ingredients.”

Notably, Taco Bell Cantina will also serve food in plastic baskets, rather than in foil wraps and trays. While in the past, Taco Bell has designed their menu items to be eaten as neatly as possible (for the popular, lap-eating, drive-thru customer), mummifying the cheese sauce and ground beef in layers of crunchwrap and foil, that experience is at direct odds with the confident transparency of just putting your Doritos Locos tacos in a basket to glow in their full, radioactive glory. And so, while to-go orders at Taco Bell Cantina will still be wrapped up and bagged, everything else will be served sur une plaque.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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