Taco Bell's Cantina Menu: Trying To Out-Chipotle Chipotle

LOS ANGELES , July 24, 2012 () – Any time a fast-food chain tries to market an item as premium fare, it faces a slippery slope. From McDonald’s infamous Arch Deluxe to Burger King’s BK Crown Jewels line, history is littered with flops whenever a quick-service restaurant tries to venture into anything it markets and/or implies as “better quality fare.”

But that hasn’t stopped Taco Bell from launching nationwide its new “Cantina Menu”, a series of items created by celebrity chef Lorena Garcia that feature black beans, cilantro rice, citrus and herb marinated chicken, and cilantro dressing. Basically, Taco Bell is going after the Chipotle Mexican Grill crowd. They’re trying to out-Chipotle Chipotle.

My first thoughts on this were simple:

Add another log to the premium fast-food failure fire.

When I go to Taco Bell, it’s because I want soft tacos, bean burritos, and the occasional Nachos Bell Grande and Mexican pizza. In other words, no item over $3. If I wanted anything even remotely resembling cilantro and citrus, I wouldn’t be going through a drive-thru.

So when I went to Taco Bell recently and saw the Cantina Menu signage, I blew it off right away. After all, black beans equals bigger bucks in my book, and I want a lot for a little. So I quickly perused the chain’s value meals and settled on the Cheesy Gordita Crunch, two soft tacos and a drink option, adding a Beefy Five-Layer burrito. The cost with tax: $8.03. A bit more than I may normally spend here, but I did add a burrito and hey, I was getting four food items!

But as I was about to pull away from the drive-thru window, I took one last glance at the Cantina Menu signage and something caught my eye:

The price. It wasn’t that bad. In fact, it wasn’t bad at all.

Most premium fast-food items have one key flaw: They cost too much. It’s a simple idea--it’s a “premium” item so people will spend more. This almost never works.

But Taco Bell is being smart here: I could’ve gotten a Cantina bowl or burrito for $4.79 ($4.99 if I wanted it made with steak) and added a drink and some tortilla chips with either guacamole, corn salsa or Pico de Gallo for $1.59 more. Doing some quick basic math, I realized that had I gone for the herb marinated chicken I had just brushed off, I’d have spent less than what I just paid for some tacos and burritos.

And lest we think that I still got the better end of the deal because I purchased more food items, consider this: Most people – myself included – consider a bowl a full meal (you have Chipotle to thank for that). So in my mind, I could’ve gotten a full meal, consisting of premium fare, for less.

And just like that, I was hooked.

So the next time I think outside the bun, I’m going to give this Cantina Menu a try. Maybe Taco Bell can’t beat Chipotle at its own game, but for the price, I’ll lift my ban on black beans from a drive-thru.

Nevin Barich is the Food & Beverage analyst for Industry Intelligence Inc., a market intelligence and information management firm based in Los Angeles. Nevin also frequents his neighborhood fast-food establishments on a regular basis. He can be reached at n.barich@industryintel.com

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