INSIDE TACO BELL: What makes Mexican-inspired chain’s kitchens ring?

While its sister companies KFC and Pizza Hut have opened hundreds of restaurants in the UK and become a part of the market fabric, Taco Bell has taken a more conservative approach to expansion this side of the Atlantic. But it is counting on new menu innovation and a ‘fresh-to-order’ kitchen strategy to power it forward and entice customers to return. FEJ caught up with Ellen Gault, marketing leader of Taco Bell Europe, to get the full kitchen perspective.

Taco Bell originally launched in the UK in the 1980s with stores in London. But most of your 24 UK outlets have arrived more recently — why the step-up in store expansion now?

In any of our markets, we always want to make sure that we are confident in the brand’s footprint before we expand rapidly. Since launching for the first time, we have tweaked and tailored the expression of the brand in the UK to ensure it resonates best with that market. We feel confident that our current menu, restaurant footprint and brand voice is the right one for us in the UK.

How would you describe Taco Bell to anybody that doesn’t know the brand? Is the format exactly the same as it is in the US?

Taco Bell is the world’s largest Mexican-inspired restaurant chain, where guests can enjoy craveable, innovative menu items at great value. Internationally, our restaurants are ‘open kitchen’ style, which differs from the traditional US format. We invite all of our guests to come in, see their food being made in front of their eyes thanks to our open kitchen, and sit back and relax with their friends and family while enjoying their delicious meals. We even offer free Wifi and charging ports in our UK restaurants. All of these key features are staples in our international format and are the result of extensive consumer research, which we do before entering every country.

Your current store network is spread all around the UK, as opposed to being concentrated in certain territories. What makes a good location for Taco Bell?

We want to be where our customers want us — whether that be near universities where the students are begging us to come to them via social media, or in a metropolitan city that’s bustling with commuters.

Talk us through the company’s production model in the UK. Is everything made in Taco Bell’s in-store kitchens or do you use a CPU that then supplies the individual stores?

At Taco Bell we pride ourselves on our cheesy, crunchy, craveable menu that is made fresh to order. We build all of our menu items fresh in restaurant.

So how would you describe the ethos and philosophy of Taco Bell’s kitchens then?

Taco Bell is all about speed as well as accuracy. We want to make sure once you’ve ordered, you get your food in a timely manner, and that once your order is up, it’s the right order. We also pride ourselves on allowing our customers to customise any menu item they want. That means a vegetarian can come in, order a product that originally has chicken, and substitute it out for beans. For this reason, accuracy is more important than ever. We want to ensure that the personalised meal you ordered is the same one you’re going home with. We are also all about transparency at Taco Bell. That’s why we’ve developed our open kitchen concept, where guests can actually see each fresh ingredient going into their taco, burrito or Crunchwrap.

What are the core components of a Taco Bell kitchen?

No Taco Bell is complete without our production line, which includes everything from our tortilla griller, to our hot and cold ingredients, to the steamers and grillers used to complete each meal. Each production line is built for maximum efficiency, ensuring that all of our guests get their meals as quickly as possible.

As each product is prepared fresh to order and is so unique, especially with guest customisation, there is the potential for differing speed of service times”

How have Taco Bell kitchens changed in recent years? Have you introduced new areas of innovation to improve productivity or speed of service, for instance?

The largest change seen in our kitchens is the introduction of the open kitchen that was introduced to the UK in 2015 — it allows guests to watch their products being made fresh to order. There are also considerations locally for new menu innovations that require new smallwares and equipment, such as new smallwares created specifically for our newest product, Chicken Nachos.

To what extent are kitchen templates and equipment specification based on your US model? Is there anything specific to the UK that you need to bear in mind?

The base of our kitchen template is very similar to that of the US model, however each market is not complete without a few tweaks. One major difference between the US kitchens and international kitchens is the equipment that is specific for French fries, which are served year-round in our global markets. Beyond that, we always customise our equipment as much as we need to in order to best serve our customers with locally-relevant food.

How much time do you spend looking at new innovations when it comes to back-of-house? Is there anything that would make the lives of your kitchen workers easier?

Our kitchens are currently laid out for maximum efficiency, which provides our guests with the best possible experience. However, our engineering and operations teams are always looking for ways to improve the productivity in our kitchens to ensure a seamless back-of-house experience for our team members. These teams are also always looking at how we can take inspiration from other markets to utilise equipment and processes in different ways as well.

You famously prepare food to order — what sort of challenges does this bring to each store and to what degree does this influence the design of the kitchen?

As each product is prepared fresh to order and is so unique, especially with guest customisation, there is the potential for differing speed of service times. Each menu item requires different cooking procedures, from melting and grilling quesadillas to filling crunchy tacos. Luckily, our engineering teams have tweaked the layout of our kitchens over time to ensure product flow is efficient and fast.

One major difference between the US kitchens and international kitchens is the equipment that is specific for French fries, which are served year-round in our global markets”

When it comes to menu innovation, how long does it take to develop a new item such as Chicken Nachos?

Our Chicken Nachos innovation was based off the US business’s version of it, called ‘Naked Chicken Chips’. This product in the US took around two years to go from ideation, to testing the concept, to launching it nationally across the US. Although the product did incredibly well in the US, we always make sure to follow the same process in the UK, so that we are confident it’s the right product for our local consumers. That means we take it through testing, sample production, commercialisation, and more, before the big national launch. Although it sounds like a long process, it’s always worth it when the end-result is a product our fans absolutely love. 

How often do you look to upgrade the UK menu? And what sort of boxes need to be ticked before you decide that a new menu item is right?

We are constantly evolving our menu and seeing what works. We dive deep into local consumer and food trends, monitor how each menu item performs, and even sit down with our customers to get their feedback on our products. We also look to them for inspiration on future products. If guests tell us they want more spicy products, we go back to our drawing board and brainstorm the best way to give them what they want. We need to ensure that each product that comes out of our kitchens lives up to the craveablity our customers expect from us, all while being at a great value.

How important is it to make sure that when innovating the menu, any new items can be produced using the existing equipment set-up you have in store? And have you ever brought in new kit to support a new product?

To ensure we maintain efficiencies and costs in the kitchen, our aim is to utilise current equipment and smallwares, however there may be times that we as a business make the decision to expand a new daypart or sales layer that requires additional equipment. An example of this would be when we launched ‘Happy Hour’ in the UK last year. With the introduction of this new daypart came the need for new equipment to support our frozen drinks platform. This process required extensive validation from the brand and our franchisee to ensure the kitchen space, product for the consumer, process for our team members and cost were all justifiable. After our Chicken Nachos launch, we have an exciting cross-promotional launch with a big brand, inspired by one of the most famous burritos in the US. With each new innovation and product launch, we are always open to bringing in new equipment to ensure maximum efficiency.

A runway to growth

Taco Bell’s sister brands within the Yum! group, KFC and Pizza Hut, boast hundreds of stores in the UK having benefitted from aggressive expansion plans over a number of years. So what has stopped it from following the same strategy?

According to European marketing leader, Ellen Gault, Taco Bell always wants to ensure it has the right brand positioning before expanding rapidly in any market.

“Over the years, we have tweaked our brand to best fit into what our consumers want and need. We feel confident that our current asset is the right one for this market. Additionally, the popularity of Mexican-inspired food is at an all-time high. Based on our extensive consumer research, it’s clear that younger generations are more likely to experiment with foods from different cultures, such as the food we serve in our restaurants. With the combination of consumers’ growing appetite to try Mexican-inspired food, and our confidence that the current positioning of the brand is the right one, we think Taco Bell has a tremendous runway to grow in the UK.”

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