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Taco Bell menu items: Fast food chain goes upscale

Taco Bell menu items target the Chipotle crowd, with slightly more upscale fare complete with an endorsement from a celebrity chef. But despite the new Taco Bell menu items, the chain isn’t forgetting its loyal core customers – young adults on the prowl for a cheap late-night snack.

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Drivers use the Drive-Thru lane at a Taco Bell restaurant in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, June 6, 2012. The chain said it plans an early July rollout of Taco Bell menu items created by celebrity chef Lorena Garcia for its nearly 5,600 US restaurants.

Steve Helber/AP

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Taco Bell menu items may be helping the chain cater to a broader clientele. But don’t worry – it's not forgetting its core customer base.

The Tex-Mex fast food giant, owned by Yum! Brands, Inc., has announced its rollout of the new Cantina Bell menu, to hit Taco Bell stores next month. Conceived with help from Miami-based celebrity chef Lorena Garcia, the new Taco Bell menu items  include a burrito and a “Cantina Bowl,” chock-full of ingredients like marinated grilled chicken, Hass avocados, corn and pepper salsa, and whole black beans.

Taco Bell has been market testing the new menu items since January, and a national rollout is planned for July 5. “Cantina Bell will introduce vibrant flavors to millions of Americans, all the while complementing the tastes of Taco Bell’s existing core menu,” Yum! Brands said in a press release.

“You’ll love it, or we’ll replace it with something you do. Guaranteed (but we’re pretty sure you’ll love it),” the Cantina Bell website reads.

The menu is a clear stab at competitor Chipotle, which dominates the Mexican fast-casual market. But Taco Bell’s prices are cheaper. Both the burrito and the Cantina Bowl – which come in steak, chicken, or vegetarian options – will retail at under $5, while comparable menu items will set you back about $8 at Chipotle (which increased its prices in June of last year). In addition to the two entrées, the Cantina Bell menu offers two side options: chips and guacamole and black beans and rice, each for $1.49.

The rollout comes after a good start to the fiscal year for Taco Bell, which helped Yum! Brands profits rise 73 percent in the first quarter of 2012 after years of lackluster earnings. The chain is also market-testing a breakfast menu in the Western US, with plans to expand to the East Coast later this year. But while all of this bodes well for the Taco Bell brand, its resurgence can be traced back to a single, baffling menu item: The Doritos Locos Taco.

Simply put, the Doritos Locos Taco, released in Taco Bell stores nationwide on March 8, is a hard taco with a shell made from the same stuff as a nacho cheese-flavored Doritos chip. A far cry from the simplicity and quality ingredients promised by the Cantina Bell menu, the Doritos Locos Taco, which retails for $1.29, is like something dreamed up by a mad food scientist and a creative six-year-old.

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And it’s the most successful product launch in Taco Bell’s 50-year history. 100 million Doritos Locos Tacos were sold in the product’s first ten weeks. The Orange County Register puts that figure into helpful perspective: it took McDonald’s 18 years to sell its first 100 million burgers. Taco Bell plans to release a Cool Ranch version of the Doritos Locos this upcoming fall, and a Hot & Spicy version is reportedly in the works.

So while Taco Bell may be courting a new batch of ingredient-minded customers with the help of a celebrity chef, it’s nice to know the brand isn’t forgetting its loyal base: younger folks looking for cheap fare late at night, occasionally open to menu items best eaten on a dare. Taco Bell is by no means a part of my regular diet, but occasionally, after a particularly expensive Ikea run, or a long day where I can’t eat dinner until the wee hours of the morning, I’ll gladly dig into a bag of Taco Bell. What’s better, I’ll probably only have to spend whatever change I can scrounge from the bottom of my purse.

And Taco Bell hasn't forgot about me, nor my late-night demographic. One of Taco Bell's newest menu items is the $.99 Beefy Nacho Burrito. Its marketing pitch is simple: Haven't you always wanted nachos you could eat with one hand?

My boyfriend and I once made a date out of trying the Doritos Locos Taco, on a mutual dare. We’ll probably do the same for the Nacho Burrito. And if Taco Bell’s sales figures are any indication, so will millions of other millennials looking for a cheap late-night snack. We’ll leave Lorena Garcia and her grilled chicken for the fast casual lunch crowd, but there’s room at Taco Bell for all of us.

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