I’ll be honest with you: I’m not a big eater of fast food. Takeout items like Chinese and pizza are much more likely options when I’m looking for a quick, convenient and inexpensive dinner. The fact of the matter is, with most of the big chains, I just don’t find their offerings interesting enough. Of course, there is one exception…
I’ve always had a thing for Taco Bell. Why? It has some spice. It uses cilantro (which I think we’ve definitively said is a good thing). It’s just different enough from the usual American fast food offerings to have held my interest.
This is why the Beef Baja Chalupa (those shells are addictive) has been occupying a spot on my bio since I came aboard ES.com and it’s likely why I received an offer to be flown out to Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California along with a number of other bloggers to tour their test kitchens and discuss product development. The opportunity for a behind-the-scenes look at the kitchen and make one last attempt to be reunited with a long-lost friend from the Taco Bell menu were too much to pass up…
And so I began my jet-setting last Tuesday, flying from Newark, NJ to Orange County, CA for a visit that encompassed dinner and conversation in Laguna Beach followed by a morning discussing Taco Bell’s latest menu offerings and touring their headquarters in Irvine.
The day started out with a look at the exhibit in the main lobby outlining the history of the company from a single “Taco Tia” started by restaurant founder Glen Bell to the multinational entity that operates 5,800 restaurants and sells two billion tacos annually. We also took a look at the employee cafeteria, which offers food from Taco Bell, it’s two sister restaurants Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, as well as a variety of non-branded items including a salad bar.
From there, it was off to the test kitchen (a full production line, just like you would find in one of the restaurants). Our “kid in the candy store” moment came as we were given a chance to take a pass at the line and make whatever we wanted. Although I was stuffed to the gills, I made a go of it with an open face taco with grilled chicken, crispy tortilla strips and green sauce. I’m not getting my hopes up that you’ll be seeing it on the big board in your local TB any time soon.
They told us all about the new Volcano Menu items (more on them in an upcoming post), and then I continued my search for a long lost love. You see, in addition to the standard, year-round menu, Taco Bell relies heavily on limited time products to entice new customers and bring back repeat visitors. There are ten slots throughout the year during which these new items run, and new candidates only make the cut after numerous steps of rigorous testing, including the use of a variety of test markets chosen for their ability to be a good predictor of the country as a whole.
But, as I said, I had a bit of an ulterior motive in mind when I went out there. It’s been a few years, but I still fondly remember the Santa Fe Chalupa. All of the Chalupas have some things in common: shell, meat, lettuce. But what make each variety different is the sauce and (sometimes) salsa used. The Santa Fe was really unlike anything else. The salsa was a mixture of whole sweet corn, black beans, cilantro and roasted red peppers. I swear that part of me died when they took it off the menu at the Taco Bell closest to me. I did find another restaurant slightly farther away that had some in stock a bit longer, but I knew it wouldn’t be able to go on forever.
When I brought up my love of the Santa Fe, I got a good bit of sympathy from the product development representative, who said that she also liked the Santa Fe. When I asked if, perhaps, they had a couple of jars of it sitting around the test kitchens, I was out of luck. But it’s good to know that I wasn’t alone in my devotion to an item that has moved on to the great Taco Bell in the sky.