Behind the Scenes in Taco Bell's Insane Food Development Lab

Behind the Scenes in Taco Bell's Insane Food Development Lab

Editor's Note: As part of America Week -- Thrillist's annual celebration of all things U, S, and/or A -- we dispatched a writer to investigate what is quite possibly the most American of American phenomena: stunt fast food.

From maybe 10ft away, the Naked Chicken Chalupa looks like a regular taco. The crispy shell might be a little thicker than normal, but the crown of shredded lettuce and diced tomato gives it a distinct air of quasi-Mexican legitimacy. Get a little closer, though, and you'll see that the taco shell is not a shell at all: it's a piece of fried chicken. Flattened, folded into a cardboard holster, and loaded down with taco fixings, it beckons your taste buds like a mythic meat-siren smothered in avocado-ranch sauce.

I'm at Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California, in a room called the Innovation Forum. It's set up like a small college lecture hall, with a few rows of stadium-style seating at the back and a long counter lined with stools at the front. I'm hunched over said counter with not one, but two Taco Bell public relations envoys, eyeballing a tray of bizarre foodstuffs. I'm running my mouth at top speed, asking all kinds of questions about these things in front of me, when publicist Alec Boyle, a slim, attractive woman with brown hair and a blindingly white smile, cuts me off gently.

"Before we go any further, I think you should try it," she says.

Up close, the Naked Chicken Chalupa, Taco Bell's latest stunt food, looks like a jumbo breaded clam stuffed with lawn clippings, but, as I cram it into my cram-hole, I find it's surprisingly light and crispy. Rob Poetsch, Taco Bell's director of public relations, sits two chairs away from me, typing intently on his laptop. It's unclear if this typing has anything to do with my presence here, my reaction to the Naked Chicken Chalupa, or the avocado-ranch sauce smeared across my face.

I chase the Chalupa with one of those Doritos Locos Tacos you've probably heard about. If you haven't, it's a taco with a hard shell made out of, well -- guess. According to Bloomberg News, Taco Bell sold over a billion dollars' worth of these things in the first 20 months after their launch in 2012. I'm licking the orange cheese dust off my fingers like an 8-year-old when Boyle asks if I'd like another -- or if I'd like to try something else. I'm about to say yes when I remember something my mother once told me about being a gluttonous pig. It was something along the lines of, "Don't."

The Inner Sanctum of Stunt Foods, Inc.

The Naked Chicken Chalupa is the latest in a line of Taco Bell specialty items of escalating perversity, including the Crunchwrap (a sort of multi-layered quesadilla with a crispy tortilla shell), the recently introduced Quesalupa (a taco-shaped Hot Pocket stuffed with melted cheese and your choice of meat or beans), and -- most famously -- the Doritos Locos Taco. All these cheese-encrusted curiosities were born and raised right here in Irvine -- roughly 30 miles from Downey, CA, where Taco Bell founder Glen Bell opened his first taco shack in 1962.

Taco Bell has to keep churning these things out, because, well, Taco Bell has to keep churning these things out. It's the nature of the fast-food business in 2016 -- an Ouroboros of innovation. "It's [not] like it was in the past, where you innovate and grow your traffic significantly," says Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a food services research and consulting firm. Today, companies are forced to release an endless string of social media-friendly stunt foods just to keep the customers they have. "In order to remain relevant, you have to innovate," Tristano says.

Chicken Taco Creature

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."

Which Brings Us to the Dawn of Chicken Smut

Friebe points to the Crunchwrap, launched in 2005, as a sort of bellwether for Taco Bell's internal thinking. "In some ways, a Crunchwrap is innovation on the taco because it's everything you love about a taco, in tortilla form. It was a way to remind us how much we can innovate off our iconic form. It opens up your mind to: what else can you make into a taco shell?"

The answer, of course, is fried chicken.

The Naked Chicken Chalupa was initially conceived by Heather Mottershaw, Taco Bell's senior director of quality assurance and innovation. According to Gomez, she just blurted it out one day. "She said, 'Steve, what if we made a taco out of chicken Milanese?'" he recalls. "The first thing I thought was, That's a really bad idea. But I thought more about it, and I began to connect the dots -- it's gotta be coated; it's gotta be fried; it's gotta have the right seasoning -- it can't taste like KFC -- and you gotta be able to fold it. All these things are going through my mind and we started prototyping." It also made sense from a marketing standpoint. "Crispy chicken is a huge menu gap and a big opportunity," Garcia says.

Like many prototypes, the original incarnation of the Naked Chicken Chalupa -- which didn't have an official name at that early stage -- didn't resemble the one I just ate. Gomez and his team experimented with different coatings and flavors until they found a winner. Meanwhile, colleagues weren't sold on the idea. "People would say, 'I don't know, you guys. It's kinda strange. I don't really get it,'" Garcia says. "It took a bit of time, but we sort of went around the organization, and tucked it into a [consumer] test and got these amazing scores back. Finally, leadership tried it and they loved it."

In the end, the Naked Chicken Chalupa was in development for two years. The final task was christening it. "We tried a ton of different names," Garcia recalls. "I wanted to call it the 'Ultimate Chicken Chalupa,' but my names almost never get picked. Then we tried something with 'Protein Style.'" When that one shockingly failed to find purchase, they drew upon the fact that "naked" in Mexican food means "no shell," and went with Naked Chicken Chalupa.

When I suggest they could've generated a decent online buzz with the name "Topless Chicken Chalupa," my idea is greeted with polite laughter. I describe the print ad: a photo of a whole uncooked chicken with a discarded bikini top on the ground next to it.

More polite laugher.

"OK, what about Full-Frontal Chicken Chalupa?" I say. "The ad could be an uncooked chicken with a black bar across its breast that says 'XXX.'"

Uneasy laughter, combined with what I sense is a strong desire for me to shut up.

Chicken Taco Creature

The Kansas City Challenge

As of this writing, the Naked Chicken Chalupa is being given a test run at about 30 Taco Bells in the Kansas City area. When Garcia describes the point of purchase advertising, it turns out my rejected pitches were pretty close: "Imagine this gorgeous beauty shot of a chicken in this big, huge taco and the back end of it is pixelated. It's kind of wink-wink," she says, before adding, "We realize this is very different."

For every new product test, Taco Bell estimates a ratio of likes to dislikes. Gomez and Garcia say they expect seven or eight out of every 10 people who order the Naked Chicken Chalupa in Kansas City to enjoy it. "And the feedback has been like that so far," Garcia says. "We'll go back after the test is complete, find those consumers in a research study, and ask them what they loved about it."

As for the percentage of Kansas City customers actually giving the NCC a shot in the first place? "I'm gonna guess one in eight people are ordering this when they come in," Garcia ventures. "Maybe higher. With the DLT, it was one in three. The [original] chalupa was one in five."

If the NCC catches on in Kansas City, Taco Bell plans to launch it nationally next year. Though it's only been in testing for a few weeks, Garcia thinks it's a sure thing. "We're doing this," she enthuses. "This is a hit."

Four days after visiting TB headquarters, I get an email from Boyle saying that Garcia's assessment was "a bit premature." More data is needed before they make the final decision, she says, but it's looking good.

The "Weirdest" One Yet

Let's say the NCC passes its taste-test and goes national. What kind of numbers would it have to post to become a permanent menu item? "That's a bigger question," Garcia says. "The DLT stayed because it added an entire new layer to our business. We weren't stealing people who would normally buy the Crunchy Taco. They were buying it in addition to. That's why it was worthy of being on permanently. Something like [the NCC] is a little more of a novelty. And it's not the easiest thing to make. The juice might not be worth the squeeze in the long haul in terms of production and the cost of operations."

(It's worth noting that Tristano disputes Garcia's claim: "Although [the DLT] sold over a billion dollars, it cannibalized sales of their other products," he says. "They didn't do a billion more than they usually do.")

Because the Naked Chicken Chalupa will be more expensive -- $2.99 to the DLT's $1.49 (or $1.89 for the DLT Supreme) -- the NCC might have to be significantly more successful than the DLT to become a permanent menu fixture. Tristano, for one, doesn't see it happening. "I don't know that it will be as successful," he says. "But this is going to keep Taco Bell in a position where the consumer sees them bringing new, exciting products to the table. And that's the credit and value that they're going to get from putting this product on their menu."

For now, the fate of the Naked Chicken Chalupa remains unknown. Garcia admits that it's "probably our weirdest" menu item yet. And she's right, of course: the Naked Chicken Chalupa is weird. Even in its admittedly delicious market-testing form, it might be a tough sell for Taco Bell customers. Gomez fully acknowledges this. "No one's ever turned crispy chicken into a taco shell before," he says. "I tell people, 'I know it's weird, but you gotta try it because it's amazing.'"

If it doesn't work, there's always the Meatball Burrito. Or the Burger Burrito. Or that ice cream cone stuffed with chicken. Or -- better yet -- all three, joined in gloopy, gluttonous, vaguely pornographic matrimony.

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J. Bennett is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles. He enjoys pork products, dressing in the style of 1970s African dictators, and long walks on the beach. His work has appeared in Vice, Playboy, Noisey, High Times, and Decibel magazine.