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When It Comes To Selling Healthier Fast Food Items, No One Goes At It Like Taco Bell

LOS ANGELES, February 5, 2014 () – Lately there appears to be this trend in fast food toward healthier versions of popular fast food items. Del Taco recently came out with Turkey Tacos, made with ground turkey instead of beef and containing 33% less fat than regular tacos. Before that, Burger King came out with Satisfries, a crinkled-cut version of its French fries with 40% fewer calories than its standard product.

But these product launches pale in scope to what Taco Bell did in 2012 and, before that, the mid-1990s.

In the summer of 2012, Taco Bell unveiled its pricier Cantina menu, with ingredients meant to increase quality perception and appeal to the health-minded. Unlike Del Taco and Burger King, Taco Bell launched an entire menu focusing on healthier eating. Taco Bell President Brian Niccol said in an article last September that the Cantina menu made up about 5% of the company’s sales, meeting expectations.

Back in 1995, the chain tried something even larger with the launch of its Border Light menu, featuring items like beef tacos with 5 grams of fat and Burrito Supremes that have 8 grams of fat. It was a bold move, done at a time before there was all this hoopla about trans fats and rising obesity rates and a documentary about a guy eating McDonald’s for 30 straight days and getting his meals super sized when asked.

On many levels, Taco Bell was ahead of its time back in 1995. Today, according to food research firm Technomic, 47% of Americans say they want healthier restaurant options, but only about 23% actually order them. That means people aren’t buying a fast food restaurant’s apple slices or plain potatoes or salads. Heck, the CEO of McDonald’s was quoted last year as saying that salads brought in no more than 3% of the burger chain’s sales. It’s easy to imagine Taco Bell’s Border Light Menu faring well today. Healthier tacos and burritos that taste similar to the regular articles? Maybe the menu came 19 years too early.

Although it was discontinued, it wasn’t like the Border Light Menu didn’t sell well in the 90s. It accounted for 9% of the company’s sales, or $600 million. Taco Bell, however, was aiming for 30% so it was deemed unsuccessful. But 9% of sales from healthier items is a heck of a lot better than what any fast food chain is doing today, and that includes the current Cantina menu.

The Technomic data shows that while the audience is there for such items, the need isn’t being met. More fast food companies are sticking their toe in the water trying to reach these consumers, but Taco Bell is the only one so far diving right in.

Nevin Barich is the Food and Beverage Analyst for Industry Intelligence. Email him here or follow him on Twitter here.

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