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McClatchy-Tribune  08/06/2014 2:06 PM ET
Taco Bell to unleash mash-up tacos under U.S. Taco brand [The Orange County Register :: ]

Aug. 06--Taco Bell's foray into the $6.3 billion fresh-Mex industry launches Monday with the debut of U.S. Taco Co., an upscale taco mash-up eatery targeting consumers who will never cross over to fast food, officials said.

The funky Day of the Dead-themed taco hut, which displays no ties to its Taco Bell parent, is a pilot concept that the Irvine-based chain hopes to expand.

"Our audience is people who love food," said U.S. Taco creator Jeff Jenkins. "We're trying to create food-truck food you don't have to chase."

Taco Bell is joining a food segment dominated by Chipotle Mexican Grill, the fast-growing chain whose $3.1 billion in annual revenue represents nearly 50 percent of total category sales. In place of Chipotle-style big burritos, U.S. Taco is offering large mash-up tacos inspired by classic American dishes.

The one-page menu features 10 tacos, shakes, craft sodas and wedge fries. No burritos. No refried beans or rice. No chips.

Each six-inch taco is a twist on a favorite sandwich or blue plate special -- from gravy-slathered fried chicken to pulled pork. One taco, the most expensive on the menu at $9.99, is a riff on a New England-style lobster roll.

During a sneak preview of the downtown Huntington Beach restaurant, Jenkins said Taco Bell is aiming for a demographic that enjoys higher quality made-to-order foods.

"There's a huge opportunity here," said Jenkins.

U.S. Taco's food presentation and decor won't be confused with that of your typical drive-through restaurant.

Shakes with names such as the Coco Loco and Shut Your Pie Hole are served in trendy Ball mason jars with large clear straws. Seasoned steak-cut fries come nestled in farmers market-style berry cartons. Each taco is served open face, piled with upscale accoutrements such as house-made pickled onions, poblano crema, manchego cheese and blue cheese slaw.

Restaurant consultant Darren Tristano said Taco Bell is following the lead of other fast-food giants looking to cash in on the $34 billion fast-casual craze.

Last year, the parent company of Wienerschnitzel opened Two Madres Mexican Kitchen, a Chipotle-style restaurant in Mission Viejo. Jack in the Box created Qdoba, the fresh-Mex segment's No. 2 player. And during its early growth years, McDonald's was a major backer of Chipotle.

Fresh-Mex still has room for more players, said Tristano, executive vice president at Chicago-based Technomic.

"It's a lot easier to create a new concept than to try and shift your existing concept," he said.

In an April interview, Taco Bell Chief Executive Greg Creed said Taco Bell had spent roughly $500,000 developing U.S. Taco over the past year. Creed said the chain can leverage its supply chain to jump into the fast-casual category with very little risk.

For example, U.S. Taco is using Taco Bell's Southern California tortilla supplier, Mission Foods, for its custom six-inch flour tortillas, U.S. Taco Executive Chef Rene Pisciotti said.

More than a year ago, Creed tasked Pisciotti and Jenkins to develop a brand that would appeal to educated foodies with disposable income. The two traveled across the country, taking inspiration from iconic regional foods -- from Philadelphia cheesesteaks to smokey Texas brisket.

They eventually decided to take those flavors and wrap them in a tortilla.

In true Taco Bell fashion, each taco is assigned a witty, sometimes provocative, name: Not My First Rodeo (smoked brisket topped with molcajete salsa), Southern Squealer (pulled pork topped with peach jalapeno barbecue sauce), Big Stud Spud (potato cheese), and Wanna Get Lei'd (mahimahi with Polynesian sauce).

The taco titles, Jenkins said, represent U.S. Taco's look-at-me vibe. Its dining room sports dark pink and teal colors and a giant "Eat Tacos" sign lit up like a retro movie marquee. Instead of beepers or table numbers, customers are given license plates with their orders.

The thumping sounds of pop music will be heard throughout the restaurant, Jenkins said.

"We want to make sure every time you order, it's a party," he said.

The company would like to get a second U.S. Taco location off the ground somewhere soon in Southern California, Jenkins said. Future locations will be designed to serve draft and bottled craft beer -- something Huntington Beach didn't allow in the hipster coastal enclave known as The Strand. Other restaurants will also offer alcohol-spiked shakes.

Tristano said a contemporary brand is a good investment for Taco Bell.

"They are looking ahead to 2020, when millennials will be a large part of the spending power," Tristano said.

But he questioned if U.S. Taco would appeal to a Food Network-raised younger audience that gravitates toward culturally authentic foods like Mexican street tacos.

"They like authentic, bold flavors," Tristano said. "I think that's going to be a challenge for them."

In July, Taco Bell, a division of Yum Brands, reported a 2 percent increase in same-store sales growth for the second quarter ended June 14. The chain's national debut of breakfast is credited for the boost, which followed a 1 percent decline in same-store sales for the previous quarter.

Contact the writer: nluna@ocregister.com

 

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