Taco Bell finally has a plant-based meat alternative to add to its robust vegetarian menu.
The company announced today it is testing a proprietary plant-based protein in the Birmingham, Alabama, market. The soy and pea blend has been in the works since 2019 and is making its debut on a new Crispy Melt Taco, made with a white corn shell tortilla, shredded cheddar, mozzarella and Monterey pepper jack cheeses, a warm nacho cheese sauce, lettuce, tomatoes and reduced-fat sour cream.
The Crispy Melt Taco is available for $2.49. Customers can opt for traditional beef for the same price, or also request the plant-based alternative on any existing Taco Bell item.
According to Chief Innovation Officer Liz Matthews, price parity was a critical piece to move the product into market test. Such parity has been a persistent challenge in driving trial of plant-based proteins, with such products costing an average of nearly 40% higher than animal-based products.
“It was important not to have an upcharge. As a brand, we want make sure this is craveable–as craveable as our seasoned beef–and to democratize the product. We wanted to make sure this was accessible,” Matthews said during a phone interview this week.
To achieve that “craveability,” the innovation team spent years moving through iterations to get the product–taste and consistency–right. Matthews said the goal was to put the product head-to-head with Taco Bell’s signature beef offerings without being able to tell the difference. She especially wants to win over the naysayers who may criticize plant-based offerings.
“As innovators, we’re constantly taking criticism and that pushes us. We knew it was possible to get to a point where you can’t tell which is which, but these things take time. The details take time,” Matthews said. “To get people to say ‘I didn’t know it wasn’t beef’–that is the nirvana of plant-based. I think we nailed it.”
Time will tell if Taco Bell’s passionate fan base agrees. Chances are good the product will at least drive trial, given Taco Bell’s vegetarian consumer base. About 12% of sales at the company come from vegetarian offerings, up from 6% just 10 years ago.
Taco Bell has long been a leader in meatless options, even launching a dedicated vegetarian menu in 2019. It was the first quick-service brand to be certified by the American Vegetarian Association in 2015 and even features a “Veggie Mode” on its app, which transforms the menu to show only vegetarian items. About 50 of its menu items are American Vegetarian Association-certified.
The company is confident enough in its new product and its fan base to test in Alabama versus more vegetarian-friendly markets on the East or West Coast.
“Birmingham is a good representation of the general population, and we want to make sure this is for everyone, and it will deliver for everyone,” Matthews said.
The timing seems right from a macro-level perspective. Nearly 40% of U.S. consumers now consider themselves to be flexitarian, consuming meat as well as vegan or vegetarian meals. The global plant-based market is expected to expand by more than 20% per year through 2028, according to a December report from ResearchandMarkets.com.
Indeed, Matthews said the idea to develop a proprietary plant-based protein came from consumer trends moving in that direction.
“We always start with our consumer and the topic that comes up with plant-based or vegetarian is choice. Consumers are genuinely interested in this and with so many vegetarian options already, it naturally made it easier to move into this space,” she said.
It’s worth noting that Taco Bell’s initial foray into plant-based meat was not created by Beyond Meat. The plant-based giant signed a three-year deal with Taco Bell parent company Yum! Brands in February 2021 to co-create menu items, and Yum’s KFC and Pizza Hut brands have already launched or tested Beyond products at this point.
That said, the partnership continues, and Taco Bell will test a product with Beyond “this year,” according to Matthews. The plant-based products are not related, and they will not be in-market simultaneously.
“We are moving and close to testing a product with them. All is well with Beyond,” she said. “We’ve always had so many partners in addition to a lot of the work we do being proprietary, so it’s not uncommon to have multiple ideas in the pipeline.”