Truffle Fries With That? Fast-Food Franchises Spice Up Their Menus


A little over a decade ago, the primary spokesman for Taco Bell was a wildly popular talking Chihuahua, who, despite becoming a cultural phenomenon and spawning a line of plush toys, did little for the company's bottom line. Today the face of Taco Bell is quite different: Lorena Garcia, a Venezuelan-born chef who has served as a judge on America's Next Great Restaurant, competed on Top Chef Masters and runs the Miami-based Lorena Garcia Cocina restaurants.

So why is a company with the reputation for serving the junkiest of junk foods (such as the infamous Doritos Locos tacos, in shells made of Nacho Cheese Doritos chips) having a critically acclaimed chef endorse its product? Because fast food is going upscale, baby--or at least as upscale as a 30-second drive-thru order can get.

In the last year quick-serve restaurants (QSRs) have begun adding bigger, fancier items to their menus. Salads have blossomed from wilted iceberg lettuce dotted with chicken cubes and ranch dressing to lush beds of greens with candied walnuts, berries and vinaigrettes. Lava-hot Styrofoam cups of joe have morphed into iced mochas, caramel frappés and espressos. Twenty years ago, fast-food companies advertised lettuce and tomato as the ultimate in burger decadence (remember the McD.L.T?). Today consumers snarf down burgers piled high with portobello mushrooms or Gouda cheese without a thought.

Has fast food finally grown up and realized that younger generations are looking for something better? Are these companies realizing that salt and fat are not the only flavors Americans appreciate? There might be some of that going on, but the real motivation appears to be fear.

"They're chasing the fast-casual segment," explains Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group. "That's exactly what's going on. We've been tracking fast food for well over 30 years, and during every period of recession and economic downturn, fast food has never experienced this kind of poor performance for this long a period of time. In 2009 the sector experienced negative growth, then leveled off. It's not growing, nor is it forecasted to grow."

During that same period, however, fast-casual restaurants--concepts like Panera Bread, Chipotle, Noodles & Company and "better burger" joints like Five Guys--have crept up from less than 1 percent of total restaurant industry traffic at the beginning of the decade to 4 percent now, actually growing during the economic downturn. "Quick serves are looking at what fast casual delivers that consumers find so appealing," Riggs says. "The cost of fast casual is not that low compared to fast food, but consumers are willing to pay more because they feel it delivers on the value proposition. It's fresh food, reasonably fast and good tasting. Fast food sees this happening, and they want to jump on the bandwagon."

That's where chef Garcia's partnership with Taco Bell comes in. Cantina Bell, a product line created with her input, is Taco Bell's attempt to get in on the "fresh-Mex" trend, which emphasizes fresh ingredients, usually cooked in view of customers and customized to their liking. Taco Bell's version incorporates many recognizable fresh-Mex menu themes, like cilantro-infused rice, black beans, grilled chicken and a roasted-corn salsa.

"The Cantina Bell menu came from a few places," says Brian Niccol, Taco Bell's chief marketing and innovations officer. "Many of our great West Coast franchisees were picking up on the fresh-Mex and fast-casual Mexican trend and brought it to our attention. At the same time, we were on a mission to evolve the brand and to make Taco Bell more relevant. Consumers were pushing us from the idea of ‘food as fuel' to ‘food as experience.'"

Similar pressure has influenced fast-food burger restaurants, which are struggling to remain relevant in a market in which Five Guys, Shake Shack and Smashburger have raised consumer expectations from smashed hockey pucks with onion and ketchup to more serious fare. McDonald's was one of the first to catch on, coming out with its Angus Third Pounders in 2009. Wendy's tried to get in on the act with its Dave's Hot 'N Juicy burgers.

But fast food is still fast food, and it's difficult for such companies to replicate the fast-casual model without sacrificing speed and value. Analyst Riggs believes it's worth trying, or they will potentially suffer more than they already have. "I think many of them are trying to have at least a premium offering on the menu," she says. "I just think it's difficult for them to get that type of thing into their systems."

Menu tweaks aren't the only way QSRs are trying to compete. For many concepts, updating their interiors is just as important. Instead of moving customers in and out as quickly as possible, they're designing spaces that encourage lingering. "People like things that are new," Riggs says. "They like concepts that are bright and clean. Cleanliness and service have a lot to do with the restaurant experience, and fast food is going to have to upgrade. If they don't, they don't stay relevant. That's when you start to lose ground. That's what happened in family dining, like Perkins, Old Country Buffet and the steak-and-buffet concepts. That segment of restaurants has been declining for years."

One company that is focused on keeping customers in its dining rooms as long as possible is Tim Hortons, a beloved institution in Canada that has slowly moved into the U.S. (it has about 730 units in mostly northern states). The company realized that its drip coffee and crullers weren't going to cut it with an American audience that has moved on to macchiatos and panini. So Tim Hortons launched a bakery/cafe format in the U.S., adding espresso drinks and an upscale sandwich menu. It also updated its logo and outfitted its stores with club-style seating, flat-screen TVs and digital menu boards.

"This is more about staying relevant, which is something we've tried to do for the last 50 years," explains Mike Meilleur, executive vice president for Tim Hortons U.S. "We keep up with the current times, and we're really trying to invite our guests to stay longer. We want to meet their needs, whether they just want to go through the drive-thru or if they want to settle down and read a book or watch TV."

In the last few years McDonald's also has rolled out a more inviting format, McCafé, in Europe and in parts of the U.S. It's an acknowledgement that consumers' relationship with fast food could be changing, and that the restaurants can become another place to hang out, similar to cafes, bookstores and fast-casual concepts.

"Our relationship with our customers is unique," says Hortons' Meilleur. "Forty percent of our customers are in the restaurant five times a week, and usually once on the weekend. We're part of their routine. For them, it's like coming home. I see meetings taking place, real-estate transactions, people reading books in our lounge chairs. It's a warm environment."

The big question is, can QSRs be all things to all people? Can they offer a fast and cheap meal for drive-thru customers and premium selections for upmarket eaters? Can noisy counters coexist with a reading room just a few feet away?

Niccol says the Cantina Bell line at Taco Bell, which has no pretensions of turning itself into a cafe, fit nicely with the standard menu. "When you need speed and convenience, there's no better solution than QSRs," he says. "What fast-casual has done is reframe what a burrito can be. Once you combine that experience with our speed and convenience, it really appeals to customers. We're already seeing more female customers and higher-income customers. It's not a dichotomy; Taco Bell is a brand with broad shoulders. It can support both."

Indeed, Taco Bell is not ready to bet the farm on its new gourmet fare--in November came word of the launch of "loaded grillers," the ultimate junk-food fantasy, consisting of nachos or baked potatoes squeezed into a tortilla.

Still, Riggs is not sure fast food can tamp down the rise of fast casual, which is primed for double-digit unit growth in the next few years. "We're moving into a very difficult time at the beginning of the year. Commodity prices are going to increase because of the drought, and I think fast food is going to have to offer up an even stronger value proposition," she says. "I think it's going to be very difficult for them to compete with fast casual."

Which means get your drive-thru blue-cheese burger with leek aioli now--it may only be here for a limited time.

Hot stuff: Chef Garcia fires up Taco Bell's Cantina Bell menu.
Photo © Lorena Garcia Group

The Dish
Chef Lorena Garcia talks cooking for the masses

Lorena Garcia is a respected chef who has helmed critically acclaimed restaurants and appeared on top-rated cooking shows. So how did a leading culinarian get mixed up with Taco Bell? We sat down with Garcia to find out why she took the job and how the public is responding to Cantina Bell, her fresher, more flavorful take on fast food.

How did you get involved with Taco Bell?
We've been working together now for about two years. In the beginning I was a little surprised that they called. In my life as a professional I never did anything in a fast-food environment. They asked me what I would change, what I would bring different to the table. It was a fantastic opportunity to reach more people and a challenge to figure out how to make Taco Bell more relevant. We went back and forth with different recipes and ingredients, figuring out how to make food that was executable and portable. In the end, Taco Bell said the process helped them fall in love with food again. It's been a perfect partnership.

Do other chefs give you grief over your foray into fast food?
You're always going to find skepticism, and people are going to say you sold out your beliefs. It's easy to sit down and criticize someone. But listen, at the end of the day what I say is that I have a chance to change people's perception and really showcase what you can do with a fast-food platform, and for less than $5 or $6. That's real change.

Do you think this type of partnership could catch on at other fast-food restaurants?
I wouldn't be able to tell you what other companies could do. But this is what I've realized from working with Taco Bell. Foodies are able to go to my restaurants and spend $15 or $20 per plate. For the majority of Americans, that's out of their reach. But fast food can reach so many, so we want to give them a menu focused on fresh ingredients.

What's next for you and Cantina Bell?
Stay tuned--the menu we're creating is amazing. People will be shocked by the quality of the quesadilla we're working on. We've been developing new recipes for steak, carnitas and salads. I cannot be happier to be working closely with Taco Bell to make revolutionary food in this environment.


View Comments (0)

Recommended for You

  • Tycoon buys 30 Rolls-Royces for Macau hotel

    A Hong Kong tycoon has placed the biggest ever order for Rolls-Royce cars, agreeing to buy 30 Phantoms to chauffeur guests at a luxury resort he's building in the global gambling capital of Macau. Stephen Hung's $20 million purchase surpasses the 14 Phantoms bought by Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel in…

    Associated Press
  • Enjoy this refreshing Triple Play offer!

    Get FIOS TV Mundo starting at $79.99/mo. w/ no annual contract + 2-yr. price guarantee. Or sign for 2 yrs. & get a $300 prepaid Visa. Click here.

    AdChoicesVerizon FiOS ®Sponsored
  • Tycoon's arrest sends shock wave through Russia

    Tycoon's arrest sends shock wave through Russia MOSCOW (AP) — The arrest of a Russian telecoms and oil tycoon has sent shock waves through the country's business community, with some fearing a return to the dark days of a decade ago, when the Kremlin asserted its power by imprisoning the country's…

    Associated Press
  • Before You Buy Alibaba, Check Out 4 Top China Stocks

    Before You Buy Alibaba, Check Out 4 Top China Stocks While investors gear up for Alibaba Group 's (BABA) hotly anticipated initial public offering, don't forget about other Chinese stocks that are worth keeping an eye on. Today's Young Guns Screen of

    Investor's Business Daily
  • As Fed takes baby steps, Cramer's trick for profit

    In turn, Cramer says making money in the market, involves looking at the environment through the lens of the Fed. "The trick is to remember that they speak for the common person," Cramer said. "The Fed wants the common person to make money." With that backdrop always in mind, Cramer says it becomes…

  • Costco Stores in Canada to Stop Taking American Express

    “The credit card relationship between American Express and Costco Wholesale Canada will not be renewed when it expires” on Dec. 31, the company said today in an e-mail to Canadian customers. The message was attributed to Lorelle Gilpin, vice president of marketing and membership for Costco…

  • "The Retiree Next Door": How successful retirees stretch their savings

    "The Retiree Next Door": How successful retirees stretch their savingsBy the time she hit her late 40s, Toni Eugenia wasn’t sure she would ever be able to retire. Eugenia, 56, a pharmacy technician who lived in Houston, was nearly $200,000 in debt and

    Yahoo Finance
  • CNBC Anchor Calls Out Fed-Hater Bill Fleckenstein In Startling Shouting Match

    CNBC Bill Fleckenstein of Fleckenstein Capital appeared on CNBC's Futures Now program on Tuesday. Futures Now host Jackie DeAngelis came out swinging, asking Fleckenstein right at the top if he was willing to admit that he had misunderstood monetary policy. Sounding taken aback, Fleckenstein…

    Business Insider
  • 1 Tip To Lose Belly Fat

    It's Hollywood's Hottest Diet And Gets Rid Of Stubborn Fat Areas Like Nothing Else.

  • Beanie Babies creator's sentence debated in court

    Beanie Babies creator's sentence debated in court CHICAGO (AP) — Federal prosecutors seeking to put the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies in prison for hiding millions in Swiss bank accounts told appellate court judges Wednesday that the toymaker's sentence of probation threatens to erode the…

    Associated Press
  • Apple to unveil new iPads, operating system on Oct. 21 : report

    The company plans to unveil the sixth generation of its iPad and the third edition of the iPad mini, as well as its operating system OS X Yosemite, which has undergone a complete visual overhaul, the Internet news website said. Trudy Muller, a spokeswoman for Apple, declined to comment. The iPad is…

  • Play

    Citi, Bank of America Offer Discounted Mortgages

    Citigroup and Bank of America will offer mortgages at discounted interest rates to help borrowers with low incomes or subprime credit. AnnaMaria Andriotis joins MoneyBeat. Photo: Getty.

    WSJ Live
  • Margaritaville casino owners seek bankruptcy

    The owner of Biloxi's Margaritaville casino has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday, only hours before a hearing where the landlord aimed to seize the property. The filing by MVB Holding LLC in U.S. Don Dornan, a lawyer for landlord Clay Point LLC, said the company had planned to ask…

    Associated Press
  • Embraer to sell 50 E-175 jets to Republic in $2.1 billion deal

    Brazil's Embraer SA, the world's third largest commercial planemaker, said on Wednesday it booked a firm order from U.S. The deal, which will be included in Embraer's order book for the third quarter, is valued at $2.1 billion, the planemaker said in a securities filing. The planes will be operated…

  • Gilead Stock Is Falling On These Drug Setbacks

    Gilead Stock Is Falling On These Drug Setbacks Gilead Sciences (GILD) shares are backsliding Wednesday on news that the patient drop-out rate for hepatitis C drug Sovaldi is quadruple that of clinical trials. In addition, the biotech's Phase 2 study results

    Investor's Business Daily
  • Norwich Information Security MS

    Online, accredited, top ranked. NSA Center of Academic Excellence. Recognized by the Department of Homeland Security. Download your free brochure!

    AdChoicesNorwich UniversitySponsored
  • Here's What Mark Cuban Wishes He Knew About Money In His 20s

    Cuban is the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. Billionaire investor and entrepreneur Mark Cuban is generous with his advice. When we asked him what he wishes he'd known about money in his 20s, he said:

    Business Insider
  • Play

    What the Fed Meeting Means for Bonds

    Janet Yellen & Co. are expected to hint at their timetable for raising interest rates. Here's how investors should prepare ahead of the meeting.

    WSJ Live
  • SHOE COMPANY: Our CEO Just Disappeared And Most Of The Money Is Gone

    "and like that: he's gone." This is an actual headline from a company press release: "CEO and COO disappeared, most of the company's cash missing." (Via FastFT) In a statement, German-based shoe company Ultrasonic said its CFO,  Chi Kwong Clifford Chan, has been unable to reach the company's CEO,…

    Business Insider
  • 10 rock-solid stocks for conservative investors

    10 rock-solid stocks for conservative investors Shares with low volatility can beat their indexes with less risk Bloomberg News/Landov U.S. Bancorp is the cheapest S&P 500 stock

  • Billionaire Investor Says Chinese People Work Harder And Western Companies Could Face Deep Trouble After Alibaba IPO

    Michael Moritz, the chairman of VC firm Sequoia Capital, is a huge fan of Chinese internet companies and reiterated his enthusiasm for the Chinese market in an interview with The Wall Street Journal Wednesday. The billionaire investor described the Alibaba IPO as a “major landmark event” that is as…

    Business Insider
  • Top Analyst Upgrades and Downgrades: AEP, BHP, GE, Incyte, 3M, Tyco, Under Armour and More

    Top Analyst Upgrades and Downgrades: AEP, BHP, GE, Incyte, 3M, Tyco, Under Armour and More Stocks were firm on Wednesday morning ahead of the FOMC meeting outcome. Tuesday’s rally may have sparked higher interest again, and investors are looking for bargains

    24/7 Wall St.
  • Best Womens Wrinkle Creams 2014

    Mom reveals simple wrinkle solution that has researchers very excited. Try this free solution today to look and feel years younger.

  • Play

    Tues., Sept. 16: Watch Humana Stock

    Humana, Global X Social Media Index ETF and Majesco Entertainment are among stocks to watch. WSJ's Chris Dieterich discusses the details with Michael Casey. Photo: Humana

    WSJ Live