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Why Fast Food Chains Spend Years Working on Their Next Big Menu Item

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Consider the moment you first heard about the Doritos Locos Taco, the innovative fast food-junk food concept from 2012 that infused a Nacho Cheese-flavored tortilla chip into Taco Bell’s signature, crunchy taco shell. As someone who was in high school during the time of its debut, I often frequented Taco Bell when I was ravenous following my after-school extracurriculars. Little did I know that the fast food world was about to be turned upside down. Incorporating Doritos directly into a taco was ingenious and seemed to emerge on the menu like a mere flip of a switch; all of it made sense. But getting that lauded taco onto the menu was not as simple as sprinkling magic Doritos dust onto a regular taco. In fact, it took a whole four years to develop.

At its core, items from both fast food and fast casual chains seem less novel than fine-dining plates streaked with zesty aiolis or hand-wrapped dumplings crafted from a grandmother’s wrinkled fingertips. After all, these items are typically mass-produced, guaranteed to taste relatively the same whether you’re chomping on a McGriddle from Tokyo or one in Kansas City, or twirling chicken alfredo from Olive Garden in Times Square rather than one in Los Angeles. But perhaps that is the curiosity of it all; how are these chains coming up with menu items that pique the interest of consumers around the world while maintaining a level of uniformity at thousands of locations? It all lies in culinary development, the team of people who conceptualize menu items and test hundreds of iterations of them before settling on a version that can be adapted and mass produced. 

“The thing about development is that it can go anywhere for two to three months all the way to four years. It just kind of depends on the actual product, the amount of complexity that’s involved in it,” Kristine Futalan, the associate manager of product development and innovation at Taco Bell, explained to me during a recent visit to the chain’s headquarters in Irvine, California. “For example, the Doritos Locos Taco was three or four years in the making. The obstacle with that was actually the commercialization piece. No one has ever made a Dorito chip seasoned in a taco shell. As you can imagine, it can be very brittle; [the] seasoning infusions [can be] all crazy. So, the commercialization piece sometimes takes years to perfect.”

The thing about perfecting a product, however, is that you have to begin with an initial idea. And, as it turns out, ideas can come from just about anywhere. “The process for us is we start with an idea which can come from our team, the marketing team, inspiration from restaurants, Pinterest, anything anywhere,” Futalan said. Yup, the next great menu item, the future equivalent of a Popeyes Chicken Sandwich, might just emerge from Pinterest. 

The folks at Panda Express, a decidedly more casual chain than Taco Bell, take a slightly different approach. “From a concept point of view, we try to be inspired by our origin. We use a lot of the regional Chinese cuisine as a foundation, but at the same time we can’t forget about the fact that we’re American as well,” Jimmy Wang, chef and the director of culinary innovation at Panda Express, said during a Panda Express Lunar New Year celebration. “We take ourselves out of the office and rent a satellite kitchen and started a process called the ‘Chef Camp,’ where myself and my culinary team will actually go out there for a month and sort of have sky-is-the-limit type of thinking. We go as wide as possible and the hope is that by the time, maybe about a year later, it really gives me an in to something that matches our brand.” In addition to Chef Camp, Wang also explained that the team frequently goes on immersion trips, both abroad and within the US, to get inspired by new ingredients and regional recipes.

Once the idea is pinned down, culinary development teams draft up concepts of the product they have in mind. This includes an illustration of what the team predicts the menu item will look like, a description of what the item will taste like, what ingredients it will be made with, a name for the new item, and a potential price. The mock-up is then put in front of consumers for feedback, the first test in a series of tests with consumers.

“Once it passes through that stage gate, then we’re like, OK, we have an idea, we have a concept, let’s put this actual food product in front of consumers to taste,’” Futalan said. “They taste this product in stores, in our restaurants, and basically from this test we get the actual feedback of them trying the food -- not just seeing a cartoon of it.” The feedback allows culinary developers to adjust their recipes based on consumer preferences. Perhaps the item was too saucy, not cheesy enough, needed acid, needed crunch. Based on these responses, the developers go back to the drawing board to revamp their item.

Every so often, a winner comes along that doesn’t need much adjustment at all. Five months after coming up with the idea for Popeyes’ sell-out chicken sandwich, Amy Alcaron, vice president of culinary innovation at Popeyes, put her version of the chicken sandwich in front of consumers in a test. Alcaron insisted on brioche buns, barrel-cured pickles, and hand-dredged chicken -- high-quality and memorable ingredients. “We were like ‘[if we’re going to] do it, let’s do it right,’” she said of the sandwich during a press event in late 2019. 

Sure enough, the results of her consumer tests were nothing but positive. “The initial result was one of the best scores I’ve ever gotten of any product I’ve done in consumer research,” Alcaron added, grinning. “So we kind of knew [we were on to something].” It seems that at that point, Popeyes smash hit of a sandwich should have made its way to consumers as soon as possible. But sure enough, just because something passes consumer tests doesn’t mean it’s ready. In fact, though Popeyes chicken sandwich launched in the summer of 2019, it was originally dreamed up in 2016. That’s years of perfecting. 

The hurdles that stand in the way of culinary development are vast and far-reaching. An item that might test well in a region may suddenly be universally appealing. A new product perhaps has all the flavors for success, but is too complicated to remain consistent across thousands of restaurants. Sometimes, when international chains are involved, education may be required for the dish as well. “A lot of times, we’re teaching a new country what Taco Bell is. Even if it’s popular regionally, in another region [consumers] might not know how to eat it,” Araceli Soto, the research and development technology for Taco Bell’s global product development team, said. “Maybe they’re not used to using [their] hands to eat. How do you make something that’s widely accepted and also pretty relevant?”

Despite the challenges, Taco Bell emerged victorious with the Doritos Locos Taco, one of the first menu items to combine a beloved chip in its ingredients, setting a spectacular multi-billion dollar precedent for future fast food stunt creations to come. Popeyes sold out of its sandwich for months, not anticipating the frenzy that would come with a simple, but well-executed, fried chicken sandwich. Panda Express’ orange chicken still remains an all-American staple. Test after test, thousands of iterations of dishes, and all for a drive-thru order that’s unlikely to cost more than a few of the crumpled bills in your pocket. Next time you order your favorite chain food meal, just know that it’s been on a long journey to get into your hands and stomach, so savor every bite.

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn