Taco Bell has long had a reputation as vegetarian friendly, but the Mexican food-fast chain is not planning on adding any plant-based meat substitutes from Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods to its menu.
At the beginning of this year, Taco Bell said it would begin testing a vegetarian menu. The news came around the same time that burger chain Carl's Jr. announced it would start selling a plant-based Beyond Meat burger at its 1,100 locations. Since then, competitors like Qdoba and Del Taco have also added plant-based ground beef imitations to their menu.
"We've looked. We've met with Beyond, we've met with Impossible — our head of innovation knows everybody, and they all know her," Julie Felss Masino, Taco Bell's president of North American operations, said in an interview. "But I think what we're proud of is that we've been doing vegetarian for 57 years."
So Taco Bell is instead going to focus on growing awareness for its own vegetarian options. The chain, which is owned by Yum Brands, plans to roll out the vegetarian menu nationally in the fall.
Today, 9% of its menu is vegetarian, but customers have been swapping out ground beef for beans in their tacos and burritos for years. In fact, the bean burrito is Taco Bell's No. 2 bestseller.
"Vegetarians know that about Taco Bell," Masino said. "They know that they can come in and customize."
Masino, who took over as Taco Bell's North American head after former Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol left to lead Chipotle Mexican Grill, said that the company will continue to watch the plant-based meat trend. Other fast-food chains less known for vegetarian options, such as McDonald's and Chick-fil-A, have also said that they are monitoring the trend.
Five percent of Americans identify as vegetarians, according to a July poll conducted by Gallup. But Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are targeting their plant-based options at another group: flexitarians. Nearly 60% of U.S. consumers have an interest in eating less meat, according to Mintel.
And when it comes to choosing plant-based options, Mintel found that these Americans are mostly focused on taste — a quality that the vegetarian and vegan options often lack. But customers seem to like the taste of products from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
A little more than a week after Del Taco launched Beyond Tacos, CEO John Cappasola said on a quarterly conference call that the chain's check and transaction same-store sales trends had significantly improved already. Plant-based options from Beyond and Impossible usually carry a higher price tag. Del Taco's same-store sales declined by 0.1% during its first quarter.
Meanwhile, Taco Bell reported 4% same-store sales growth during its first quarter. The fast-food chain has about 12 times as many locations as Del Taco.