By that standard, Taco Bell is one of the most relevant companies going. Melissa Friebe, VP of Taco Bell's Insights Lab -- a sort of taco think tank plastered with colorful Post-it notes, where all the numbers and food concepts are, well, crunched -- acknowledges that stunt foods have become the law of the land. "It's what consumers expect of us," she says. Each item has to be weird and outrageous and interesting. "If it's not," she says, "it won’t work."
This Poor Bastard Had to Eat 2,000 Taco Shells
The Naked Chicken Chalupa began its life where all these things do: in the Test Kitchen three floors down from the Insights Lab. On a recent Friday afternoon, I'm escorted there by my Taco Bell handlers Boyle and Poetsch. On the way down, Poetsch opens a door to reveal a narrow room with a long counter and a row of chairs partitioned off into small peepshow-style booths. Each station is equipped with a video camera through which Taco Bell can record the reactions and facial expressions of people trying out TB's latest creations. It's called the "Sensory Panel," and it's one of the early proving grounds for all of Taco Bell's stunt foods.
One code-locked door later, we're in the Test Kitchen, a gleaming stainless-steel taco workshop where it smells like -- surprise! -- Taco Bell. Here I meet Senior Marketing Manager Kat Garcia, who has worked for the company on and off since the '90s and invented the Double Decker Taco, which remains on Taco Bell's menu. I'm also introduced to Product Development Manager Steve Gomez.
With a shaved skull, gym physique, and background in food science, Gomez is the guy who makes Taco Bell's stunt-food concepts into reality. Working closely with Garcia, he has developed the Doritos Locos Taco, the Quesalupa, and, most recently, the Naked Chicken Chalupa. He says the turnaround time on most product ideas is six to nine months, though the Doritos Locos Taco took three years and untold variations based on roughly 30 to 40 recipes. When I ask Gomez to estimate how many DLTs he had to eat during those years, he just starts laughing. "If I said a couple thousand shells, it probably sounds like I'm exaggerating," he says. "I've had way, way too many shells. I've had my quota for life."
With Taco Bell constantly cranking out new menu items, I start wondering how many never make it out of Irvine. "To give you an idea, I write 50 concept ideas a month," Garcia says. "We do 300-500 ideas a year in the drawing phase. Cull that down to maybe 20 or 30 ideas that actually get in-market. A lot of things get tossed aside."
The Fried Chicken Ice Cream Cone and Other Casualties
Gomez has a dream. He calls it the Burger Burrito, which probably doesn't need much explaining, but we'll let him explain it anyway: "I wanna get the flavors of an In-N-Out burger into a burrito. You just need the right ground beef with the right toppings and maybe some Mexican-inspired Thousand Island. It got a lot of traction here at first, but when I started to talk to leadership about it, I kept hitting a wall."
(Throughout our talk, Garcia and Gomez consistently refer to "leadership," often glancing upwards and even pointing toward the heavens -- or at least the top floors of HQ -- where suits with unfathomable pay grades issue decrees about what the Taco Bell experience should entail.)
Gomez says the Burger Burrito didn't happen because "that's what the burger boys are for," referring to the companies ruling the fast-food burger landscape. "We had other ideas to go after, so we didn't necessarily have to put our twist on a burger," he says. "Even though it tasted great." Never say never, though. The Burger Burrito could very well materialize in the not-so-distant future. "I've been here long enough -- 10 years -- to know that ideas certainly do come back," Gomez explains. "You put a little twist, a little turn on it, and it goes forward. Even trends or consumer needs could be different at some point. It could absolutely happen."
Garcia's pet project is slightly further afield. "You're gonna laugh at me, but I have this obsession with cones -- like ice cream cones -- but with crispy chicken [instead of ice cream]," she says. "I wanna have this cone that's pressed in the waffle iron and has a maple-buttered flavor and then you have crispy chicken on the inside with some kind of ranch dressing. I can't get the cone idea past leadership, but now my boss is on maternity leave, so I'm gonna try again."
Friebe had previously told me about a meatball burrito and a quesadilla stuffed with mac & cheese as promising near-misses, but when I bring up the meatball concept in the Test Kitchen, Gomez starts chuckling. "I'm just gonna put it out there: the idea of 'balls' is, well -- when you think of what the advertising might be, no matter how tasty or delicious this thing is, it's just not gonna work," he says.
Food on a stick is another idea that has come up repeatedly at Taco Bell "ideation" sessions, but Gomez is having none of that one either. "It's funny because a lot of these ideas are probably things you've had at county fairs, like meat on a stick -- or What if we had a stick and the stick was edible and it had some kind of food on it?" Gomez laughs. "But then you start to ask: what's really great about that? Is it because it's portable? You have to ask those questions."
But wait, I ask, what would the edible stick be made out of?
Gomez laughs: "I'm sure some kind of corn tortilla."
But isn't the stick idea kind of… phallic?
"I mean, if you've got a problem with balls," I venture.
More laughter. "Again, it's nothing we've ever really taken seriously."