The breakfast bell is about to ring at a most unlikely place: Taco Bell.
The Mexican fast-food chain, best-known for its low-budget tacos and burritos, on Monday announced plans to roll out an unconventional breakfast menu nationally beginning March 27. The chain is champing at the bit for its share of the $50 billion limited-service breakfast business. Taco Bell's share of that breakfast market could be $700 million, estimates restaurant consulting firm Technomic.
Taco Bell's plans are to do breakfast with mostly portable items that its Millennial base can hold in one hand and cellphones in the other. Among its outside-the-box breakfast items:
- Waffle Taco. A warm waffle wrapped around sausage or bacon, scrambled eggs, cheese and syrup.
- A.M Crunchwrap. Scrambled eggs, hash browns, cheese and bacon or sausage in a warm tortilla.
- Cinnabon Delights. Poppable pastries filled with Cinnabon frosting and coated with sugar.
Clearly, Taco Bell is very late to the fast-food breakfast party. McDonald's, which owns at least a 20% share of breakfast, has been at it for decades. Burger King eventually followed. Wendy's has tried off and on in fits and starts. And Subway entered full-bore several years ago. But will consumers make any logical connection between Taco Bell and breakfast?
It's not exactly a disconnect, says Ron Paul, president of Technomic, the restaurant consulting firm, but Taco Bell faces a bigger breakfast problem, he says. 'So far, no one has been able to compete with McDonald's for breakfast."
How to change that?
"We're going to reinvent breakfast," insists Taco Bell President Brian Niccol. 'We don't use buns or burgers or circular things at breakfast – that's not who we are."
Not only will consumers totally get it, he says, but it also broadens Taco Bell's appeal. 'It's a transformational moment for the brand," he says. "It will expand our connection with consumers.'
For months, the chain has been testing breakfast in about 850 restaurants in Fresno, Omaha and Chattanooga. While Niccol won't be specific about breakfast sales, he says they "exceeded our expectations." Breakfast will be served from about 7 a.m. in most markets, though some earlier. There are no current plans for all-day breakfast, he says. McDonald's has been studying longer breakfast options for months but has made no decision yet on extending it. "There are no tests currently in place for extended breakfast hours," spokeswoman Lisa McComb says.
Some folks from outside Taco Bell's test market areas have made "pilgrimages," Niccol says, to test the breakfast offerings and have chatted about it on Twitter or Facebook.
Even then, Niccol recognizes that getting folks to switch from breakfast at McDonald's to Taco Bell won't be a piece of cake. 'The hardest thing is getting people to change their breakfast routines," he says. 'The way you do that is to better meet their needs."
Which is one reason Taco Bell already is looking at other portable breakfast products. "We're exploring how to get get pancakes portable," Niccol says. "We're close," he says.
And, yes, he says, it's also looking into some better-for-you offerings such as oatmeal and yogurt parfaits – but with a Taco Bell twist, of course.