BY JILL COWAN Californian staff writer email@example.com
For the second time in six months, Bakersfield will play guinea pig to fast food giant Taco Bell, serving as one of two test markets for a new line of menu items starting January 26.
This time, though, instead of pitching unabashedly processed Doritos Locos Tacos Irvine-based Taco Bell is taking a different tack: offering customers fresher, more upscale food from its new "Cantina Bell" menu.
"Cantina Bell is driven (by) the insight that consumers are increasingly looking for food as an experience, not just food as fuel," said Taco Bell Corp. spokesman Rob Poetsch in an email. "Of course, we'll continue to offer the classic Taco Bell menu items that we're known for."
Those, as Taco Bell enthusiasts know, include a variety of Mexican-style fare, usually made up of some combination of meat, cheese and either a tortilla or a taco shell -- or both. Many items on Taco Bell's current menu are in the $1 price range.
The new items, which are scheduled to be rolled out in Louisville, Ky., along with Bakersfield, will include $5 tacos, burritos and bowls with a choice of marinated chicken, steak or veggies more in the vein of the increasingly popular Chipotle Mexican Grill.
They'll be served with marinades, black beans, guacamole and grilled corn salsa created by Miami chef Lorena Garcia, according to a Reuters report and menu taste test.
The move away from fast food is one that's become common, said California Restaurant Association spokesman Daniel Conway.
"I think, just generally speaking, this is very much in line with what you're seeing across the industry -- not just in fast food," he said. He said the Cantina Bell menu sounded "interesting," because it seemed to combine elements of two restaurant trends: providing healthy choices and the emergence of "fast-casual" restaurants, like Chipotle and Panera Bread bakery-cafes.
Still, top Taco Bell brass Greg Creed told Reuters that the idea of Taco Bell repositioning to be Chipotle was "crazy talk."
Nevertheless, Conway said more and more quick service chains have expanded to a "bar-bell pricing strategy," where some items are more extreme bargains, and others are a little more expensive, but higher quality.
"McDonald's has like high-end angus burgers and they still have their 99-cent menu," he said. "Looking at kind of the macro trends, if Taco Bell does it, it also makes sense from that perspective."
Local eaters, for the most part, said having a convenient option for a meal that's healthier and more upscale than typical Taco Bell fare would be a good thing.
"I think it would make a huge difference," said Emily Baumruk, 26, heading out of a downtown Taco Bell around lunchtime Friday.
She said she sometimes tries to bring lunch to work, but it doesn't always happen.
Co-worker Jerricka Arrington, 32, added that they're "always on the go."
So, she said, a healthier, fresher fast food menu "would be helfpul and convenient."
John Grimmig, 41, who was finishing up a Chipotle bowl Friday said he'd give the new Taco Bell menu a try, "as long as it's healthy."
"I don't like a lot of processed foods," he added.
For die-hard "Chipotle addict," Kaitlin Hulsy, 26, no amount of menu retooling would lure her back to the Bell.
"I'd rather pay the two extra bucks," she said. She cited Chipotle's atmosphere, service and "real food" sensibility as reasons she preferred it to Taco Bell.
Bakersfield resident Heather Thompson, on the other hand, likes Taco Bell just fine the way it is -- no fancy upgrade necessary.
Outside Taco Bell, she shook her head skeptically while her companion, Greg Roberts said he'd be up for trying something new.
"Taco Bell's classic, man," she said. "I've been getting the same thing for years."