Taco Bell’s ‘First Meal’ set to debut


Taco Bell is scheduled to begin rolling out its long-awaited breakfast platform — or “First Meal” — next week in about 750 locations in 10 states, the first wave of what the chain promises will be a year of change and innovation.

In addition to the morning daypart rollout next week, the Irvine, Calif.-based quick-service chain is also beginning tests of a new Cantina menu in about 150 stores. The menu includes an upgraded tier of higher quality options developed with the assistance of celebrity chef Lorena Garcia and could position Taco Bell against fast-casual Mexican brands.

Both are moves that Brian Niccol, Taco Bell’s chief marketing and innovation officer, said will shift consumer perceptions of the brand toward experience and quality.

“Taco Bell will always stand for a great value proposition,” he said. “But we will try to stand out for the experience, for the flavors of the food and innovation. We’re dialing up our relevance for an expanding palate.”

Last year Taco Bell took a hard hit after a consumer lawsuit challenged the credibility of the chain’s seasoned beef. Officials with parent company Yum! Brands Inc. have outlined an aggressive plan for 2012 that will include what it calls breakthrough products, such as the Doritos Locos Taco made with a Nacho Cheese Dorito shell, and the addition of breakfast and the new chef-inspired Cantina menu.

While some observers have suggested that Taco Bell has fallen into the shadow of limited-service category forerunner Chipotle Mexican Grill, Niccol said Taco Bell “has no interest in being Chipotle.”

“There are some forums and flavors that have been introduced that we have every right to participate in like burrito bowls,” he said. “We can do that and be a better value.”

Breakfast has been a rapidly growing category in recent years, accounting for about 12 percent of total restaurant industry sales, generating about $42 billion annually, according to Chicago-based market research firm Technomic Inc.

Watch a commercial for First Meal; story continues below

Niccol said the chain has conquered the late night daypart with its Fourth Meal addition and now it wants to steal marketshare from the growing number of quick-service chains offering breakfast, including category leader McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s.