The Same Chain That Ran a Veggie Attack Ad Is Launching a Vegetarian Menu

Two years after slamming vegetables in a Super Bowl spot, Taco Bell is looking for some meatless love.

(Photo: Taco Bell)

Oct 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Hey, millennials, Taco Bell loves you! That seems to be the not-so-subtle message behind what’s been a busy week for the nation’s No. 1 fast-food taco joint. On Monday, Taco Bell launched its overhauled website, complete with the cheekily simple URL ta.co, a revamp that’s clearly aimed at the text-and-Twitter generation. The layout features slick customizable menu options, rapid-fire ordering for pickup, and a rather odd BuzzFeed-esque blog called The Feed. On Thursday—World Vegetarian Day—the chain best known for its belly-busting carnivorous creations announced a brand-new all-vegetarian menu featuring 13 items stamped with third-party certification.

“At Taco Bell, vegetarians are not an afterthought,” CEO Brian Niccol said in a release. “We sell more than 350 million vegetarian items each year, but until now haven’t been vocal about it.”

Well, “afterthought” is an interesting way to put it, given that Taco Bell hasn’t been shy about heaping outright derision on vegetarians. Remember that ad a couple of years ago that showed a guy bringing a veggie tray to a football party? The spot opens with the narrator saying, “Veggies on game day is like punting on fourth and one—it’s a cop-out, and secretly, people kind of hate you for it,” then segues to partygoers tearing into a 12-pack of Taco Bell tacos loaded with ground meat.

Yeah, vegetarians, Taco Bell would rather you forget about that. Instead, the home of such meaty offerings as the Volcano Beef Quesarito and the Beefy 5-Layer Burrito wants to become your go-to drive-through when you find yourself beset by cravings for meat-free, down-market Tex-Mex.

But while Taco Bell is touting itself as being the first fast-food giant to offer a menu certified by the American Vegetarian Association, that it felt the need to solicit third-party certification for its meatless offerings suggests something about the trust gap the chain faces in what’s often been its quixotic bid to steal some thunder from relative upstart Chipotle.

While Taco Bell indisputably remains the largest Mexican-style quick-service chain in the world, it’s been nervously eyeing Chipotle in its rearview mirror for a number of years now as its competitor has steadily advanced up the fast-food rankings. Chipotle’s enviable success has been widely credited to its ability to appeal to millennials who prefer the flavor of the chain’s fresher fare and its oft-emphasized commitment to sustainability—even if that means paying a few bucks more for a burrito.

When Chipotle found out that one of its big pork suppliers was not in compliance with the company’s animal-welfare standards, it not only suspended all purchases from the supplier but pulled pork carnitas from its menu after other pork suppliers weren’t able to provide enough humanely raised pork to meet the company’s demands. It’s a move that hurt Chipotle’s bottom line—company execs attributed disappointing sales figures last summer to the pork crisis. Nevertheless, Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells said in a statement, “The decision to stop selling carnitas in many of our restaurants was an easy one. We simply will not compromise our high standards for animal welfare.”

While it’s true that Chipotle has had some missteps on the sustainability front, like the recent flap over its billing itself as the first national restaurant to ban GMO ingredients, you can hardly imagine Taco Bell going so far as to yank a best-selling menu item over sustainability concerns—just as it’s hard to imagine Chipotle fans needing to see some sort third-party certification to verify that what Chipotle says is vegetarian is, in fact, vegetarian.

And that may prove to be the crux of Taco Bell’s dilemma. With its vegetarian menu, newfangled website and app—not to mention its upcoming trial launch of Taco Bell Cantina, a more trendy, urban-oriented offshoot—Taco Bell is going to great lengths to lure the millennial demographic. But whether it can truly connect with a generation that has proven to be more conscientious about making better choices when it comes to eating may mean focusing less on style and more on substance.