Taco Bell hits pay dirt in vegetable patch

| by S.A. Whitehead
Taco Bell hits pay dirt in vegetable patch

Regardless of whether it's a strong connection with animal welfare or a desire to eat in ways that are less resource-dependent or heavy with animal fats, it's clear that many more people are jumping on the vegan and vegetarian bandwagon these days. 

According to Statistic Brain, 7.3 million Americans now claim they are vegetarian with nearly 23 million claiming they follow a vegetarian-inclined diet. They tend to be people under the age of 54, although nearly 18 percent of those over 55 say they are vegetarian or vegan.

The data also show that while nearly 60 percent have been following this meat-restricted eating plan for more than 10 years, a quarter of the current total number of vegetarians and vegans say they are relatively new followers of these diets, reporting that they've just changed to the meat-free eating plans in the last five years. That means that nearly 2 million American adults have gone meat-free in the last five years alone. 

And restaurant brands, regardless of dining category, are paying attention, finding says to cater to those meatless cravings. One mammoth QSR that got on the trend early was Taco Bell.

During a recent question-and-answer session with Taco Bell leadership via the chain's PR brand, QSRweb.com learned that this adaptation has been a great contributor to the chain's overall success.

Q: How big a deal is vegetarian dining to Taco Bell overall? 
We sell more than 350 million vegetarian menu items each year, and our bean-and-cheese burrito is our second most popular item on our menu. Our consumer research found that roughly a quarter of consumers are eating more vegetarian meals. We recognize that we have an opportunity to make access to vegetarian options easier.

Q: Is there any research that you know of that indicates the vegetarian segment of diners is growing? 
Based on our sales, 7 percent of all orders at Taco Bell are either vegetarian or made vegetarian by some type of substitution or removal, which is an incremental increase from the past year. Our consumer research shows that roughly a quarter of our consumers eat more vegetarian options now than in 2013.

Q: Do you think the vegetarian and vegan communities are adequately served through current restaurant offerings? 
Being a vegetarian can be tough when you go out to eat. Vegetarians want options beyond sides and salads, and they don't want to be an afterthought. At Taco Bell, our customers — whether they are vegetarians or flexitarians — have … affordable meatless options that they can't find anywhere else.  

Q: What kind of feedback has Taco Bell gotten from vegetarians and vegans? 
Bean burritos are our No. 2 most popular menu item. And now that we're talking about it (more), we're surprising a lot more people with what we have to offer. 

Q: Can you tell me about some your vegetarian and vegan offerings? 
Taco Bell has 36 AVA (American Vegetarian Association)-certified vegetarian ingredients, 27 of which are also vegan. Between these ingredients and 12 AVA-certified menu items, Taco Bell has over 5.7 million vegetarian options. That includes everything from entree offerings to sauces, chips, guacamole, shells, beans, vegetables, burritos, cheeses and tostados.

Q: What can you tell me about Taco Bell's future plans for serving this audience of diners? 
Taco Bell already has a robust offering of vegetarian menu (items) — 5.7 million combinations. Our focus right now is to get our customers excited about the vegetarian meals we already offer. Many vegetarians know about our menu, but it is new to others. However, innovation is always top of mind and we continue to brainstorm new, bold combinations to add to the menu in the future.

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Customer Service / Experience, Food & Beverage, Hot Products, Marketing, Operations Management, Research & Development / Innovation, Social Responsibility, Trends / Statistics

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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