While fast-food chains have generally been dishing up new meat-free versions of burgers and tacos, Taco Bell has so far been an iconoclast during the ongoing plant-based fast food wars. To date, the popular fast-food chain has relied on traditional vegetarian standbys such as beans and potatoes. Last year the brand decided to make it easier for non-meat eaters to order at its locations by rolling out a vegetarian menu.
But like other restaurant chains, Taco Bell has had to pivot quickly during this pandemic, which thereby comes with supply chain disruptions, dining room closures, and the need to take on new health and safety precautions.
So, the Irvine-based chain announced late last week that it was nixing several items from its menu, including those laden with potatoes.
It’s a curious move considering that potatoes are on a roll as many consumers are seeking comfort food during this era of self-quarantining and shelter-in-place orders. Major potato producers including McCain Foods and J.R. Simplot are also touting the sustainability of their cornerstone food products.
For Taco Bell, this is a bottom-line business decision. Without saying so explicitly, the company has to adapt to a new reality of drive-in purchases and delivery services via third parties. (Plus, have you seen the lines at the local fast food drive-in lately?) Add the reality of ordering at a drive-in lane, satirized perfectly by this Saturday Night Live skit from almost 30 years ago, and you’ll get it.
Judging by the backlash on social media, however, one would think Taco Bell would need to hire the same crisis communications firms needed when celebrities like Kendall Jenner and Lea Michele had their own episodes of public scorching on platforms like YouTube and Twitter. The comments ranged from the all-caps rants we are usually accustomed to getting in emails from the unhinged uncle to surmising that “getting rid of potatoes and loaded grillers is actually illegal.”
Food and culture writer Bettina Makalintal was far more measured on Vice: “Swapping potatoes in for meat seemed genius, like a secret you only knew if a stoner friend passed it along to you, and a potato-filled Quesarito is a delight of carb overload that I can only hope you experience before the sad day of August 13, 2020.”
The stark reality of today’s economy, however, means adding affordable menu items while making an eight-hour shift less complicated for employees. As for the ditching of potatoes, one writer noted that just about all of Taco Bell’s food items can be customized to be vegan.
Of course, there is another option that vegans in the know seek out when they crave Mexican food, and are easily found in California and the Southwest: nopal cactus, or nopales — they offer a nice crunch and texture without the carb calorie bomb. Now that would be a menu addition that would score Taco Bell endless press and social media buzz.
As for Taco Bell skipping the plant-based protein craze, brace yourself: The company’s CEO, Mark King, told Bloomberg earlier this year that the chain had been in talks with both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.
Image credit: Lars Blankers/Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.