Taco Bell may always be associated with neon-colored beverages and big, beefy burritos. But quietly, the fast food chain has established a second identity as a haven for vegetarians and vegans. As of 2020, the bean burrito was the company’s number two biggest seller.
Today, the company is making two big announcements to support vegetarians and plant-based eaters. First, it’s permanently bringing back its popular potato bites, which were taken off the menu as COVID-19 struck, on March 11. Second, it’s launching a partnership with Beyond Meat to release a new plant protein within the coming year.
Taco Bell has a strong lineup in place for vegetarians and vegans already. You can make 1,000 vegetarian items during Taco Bell’s breakfast hours alone, with its 30 vegetarian ingredients. In Taco Bell’s own app, all you have to do is tap to activate Veggie Mode, and see items like the Crunchwrap Supreme get a meatless makeover. Even PETA has a Taco Bell menu.
In light of that, why did potatoes ever leave the menu? As COVID-19 spread in March, dining rooms closed, and drive throughs became crowded. We documented this drive-through phenomenon in August, but one way Taco Bell responded was to streamline its menu. Potatoes were axed in the interest of speed. (And having worked in a Taco Bell myself, I can say that keeping potatoes cooked and hot on the line was tricky during rush hours.)
“We knew we’d hear about it,” says Liz Matthews, Chief Food Innovation Officer at Taco Bell. “And I feel like I did hear about it from every American from the entire country! But we wanted to focus on operations.” Streamlining the menu did help speed things up, and Taco Bell got its drive-through times down to 3:30 per customer.
Now that drive-through operations have stabilized, the potatoes will be back as a protein alternative in carb-splosions like the Spicy Potato Taco.
But after paring back the menu—many items, like my beloved pico de gallo, still aren’t coming back in March—the Taco Bell team used the time to rethink its approach. “COVID actually gave us a moment to step back and focus on things meaningful to consumers,” says Matthews. “What ingredients do you want? What vegetarian products do you want?”
That includes the aforementioned new protein being developed with Beyond Meat, to go on sale at Taco Bell later this year. When I ask if it’s going to be a plant-based ground beef, Matthews is coy with the details. But she dodges my questions in such a way that I conclude it’s probably something more akin to a plant-based steak.
“I’ll tell you we’re doing it in a way you haven’t seen before, and it will have an innovative Taco Bell twist,” says Matthews. “It will be craveable and delicious. I’m serious. When I had this product, I was fooled.”
As for Taco Bell’s bean mainstays, those aren’t going anywhere. And the company plans to introduce more “fresh ingredients” over the next year to further round out the vegetarian/vegan menu, too. Ultimately, Taco Bell doesn’t want to prescribe how to eat less meat, but to offer a variety of options for those who want to eat less meat.
“I think what we’re doing is building different options for different people,” says Matthews, alluding to menu items for vegetarians and vegans, along with the new plant-based meats that can appeal to carnivores who want a meatless meal. “Having different options people feel good about. It’s not that we’re headed in one direction, plant or meat alternative. We want to prioritize variety.”
It also helps that 37% of all Taco Bell orders are customized, meaning that swapping and substituting ingredients so that people get just what they want is commonplace today. Because the company never wants to fall short of its own reputation for delivering the over-the-top menu items that define Taco Bell: “You order something and feel you were cheated because it’s not craveable or delicious,” says Matthews. “Everything we’re working on from a vegetarian perspective is craveable, delicious, and filling.”