This story has been updated.
Investors and fast-casual watchers alike can’t decide whether they love or loathe Chipotle’s bold decision last week to hire Brian Niccol, the chief executive of Taco Bell, to lead the troubled chain, which still can’t shake its reputation, fair or not, for serving tainted burritos. Or having rats fall from the ceiling at a Dallas store.
Some applauded the company’s pick, saying Niccol was the right person to make Chipotle relevant and innovative again. But Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC’s “Mad Money,” couldn’t wrap his mind around the culture clash of a quick-serve CEO suddenly running a fast-casual chain built on fresh, high-quality ingredients.
“This is a staggering pick,” Cramer said last week. “It’s everything they don’t stand for. It’s like naming a guy from the Army to run the Air Force.”
Niccol is considered a maverick who helped reverse the fortunes of Taco Bell, a once-moribund brand that recently blew by Burger King to become the fourth-largest restaurant chain in the United States, according to one report. Niccol achieved this remarkable turnaround by focusing obsessively on millennials: After the taco emoji was approved, the chain developed an emoji engine to encourage taco-related imagery on your favorite social network.
What’s more, the chain partnered with Lyft to help get late-night drunks to a Taco Bell drive-through with the push of a button. It has also promised to start selling alcohol at more than 300 cantina-style restaurants in big-city markets. If that’s not enough, the chain has aggressively, and playfully, marketed itself via Twitter, TV commercials and its own web series, Taco Tales.
Is it any wonder that Fast Company magazine named Taco Bell one of the world’s most innovative companies in 2017?
But one of the chain’s largest lures has been its menu innovations, starting with the popular Doritos Locos Tacos, a snack that packed standard Taco Bell fillings into a hard shell shellacked to taste like Doritos. The product was introduced in 2012, and two years later, Taco Bell was selling about 1 million Doritos Locos Tacos a day. Since then, the chain has become an incubator for all kinds of hybrid dishes, some available for only a limited time.
Among the more recent menu innovations: the waffle taco and biscuit taco (both part of Taco Bell’s campaign to take a bite out of McDonald’s dominance of the breakfast market), the Quesarito (which, in a bizarre twist of fate, was apparently an idea swiped from Chipotle’s secret menu) and, most recently, Nacho Fries. The latter product was pitched, via a clever marketing campaign, as a threat to Big Fries.
But here’s the thing: Clever marketing may attract customers, but only the food will make them return. I recently stopped by a Taco Bell on New Hampshire Avenue in Takoma Park, where the music over the sound system was definitely not aimed at millennials. Unless millennials like the Carpenters and Dave Mason.
The Mexican Pizza: Introduced in the late 1980s, before culinary mash-ups became objects of worship, the “pizza” is basically a Burrito Supreme in tostada form. A double stack of crispy tortillas sandwiches a layer of beans and ground beef, the whole of which is topped with a mildly tangy sauce, shredded cheese and chopped tomatoes. I can’t tell which takes more nerve: labeling this thing “pizza” or “Mexican.” It’s the kind of dish that a chain produced before Americans became sensitive to cultural appropriation, authenticity and, well, good taste.
The Quesarito: The flour tortilla is so neatly folded, I can’t help but suspect this burrito-quesadilla hybrid was spit out in a factory. But an employee sets me straight: The dish was prepared in the back by human hands, not cold steely machines. Regardless, the tortilla log tastes largely of . . . tortilla. The fillings are loaded into the flatbread with a miser’s sense of generosity, including the cheddar cheese and cheese sauces. Only highly suggestible souls would mistake this for a quesadilla. I suspect Niccol can’t wait to work at Chipotle, where burritos are not emaciated specimens.
Nacho Fries: Yes, french fries at Taco Bell. Niccol’s hallmark, it seems, is to place no restrictions on menu development. To paraphrase the old Taco Bell slogan, Niccol may make a run for the border, but he’ll never acknowledge its existence. To fit fries within the framework of the chain, Taco Bell has created yet another hybrid, pairing seasoned fries with a spicy nacho dipping sauce. It’s underwhelming, in large part because the marketing hype suggests something more original.
I can’t imagine circling back to Taco Bell for any of these items, not even if I imagined myself as a drunk 24-year-old in the hands of a Lyft driver.
Clarification: A previous version of this story implied that Taco Bell’s petition for a taco emoji led directly to its approval. There is no evidence of that.