June 6, 2012 at 1:35 PM ET
First it was the cola wars, then the beer wars, and then the burger wars. (OK, maybe not exactly in that order). Now let the burrito wars begin.
Taco Bell fired a salvo against Chipotle Wednesday, announcing a new “Cantina Bell” menu that seemed to take some cues from its pricier rival. The four new menu items would include ingredients new to Taco bell: Black beans, cilantro rice, citrus and herb marinated chicken, “new” guacamole, fire-roasted corn salsa, creamy cilantro dressing, and Pico de Gallo.
New menu items featuring the ingredients include bowls and burritos. The company is suggesting franchises sell chicken or veggie offerings for $4.79 and $4.99 for steak.
When asked if it was a challenge to Chipotle, company spokesman Rob Poetsch said it had to do with changing customer tastes.
“It’s really based on insights that we learned starting back in 2010,” Poetsch said. Customers were no longer looking “at food as fuel. They are now interested in new tastes and textures. We can offer these great textures and great flavors with the convenience of the Taco Bell drive-through.”
Taco Bell will have a better chance to sell up to current customers rather than take them away from Chipotle, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a food industry consulting group.
“What they’re trying to do it to move their menu to be more upscale, which will align with their competition like Chipotle,” he said. “I think because of the number of (Taco Bells) they have a bigger opportunity to move their current customers up to a higher price point rather than take customers from Chipotle.”
Taco Bell is No. 1 in the “limited service Mexican” restaurant segment which takes in $13.5 billion a year in the U.S., with 50.4 percent of the business, Tristano said. Chipotle is second with 16.4 percent. But Taco Bell has slipped about 3 percent in the last year and Chipotle has gained about the same amount.
Taco Bell has about 6,000 restaurants in the U.S., Chipotle has about 1,200.
A Chipotle spokesman said the company didn’t see Taco Bell’s moves as a challenge.
“There’s a lot more to what we do than black beans and corn salsa,” said Chris Arnold. “What makes Chipotle work is more ingredients from sustainable sources with traditional cooking methods in a comfortable environment. There’s a lot of soul behind the menu.”
“It’s encouraging to see restaurants like Taco Bell improve what they’re offering,” he added
Taco Bell is touting that the new items were developed with chef Lorena Garcia, who has been on the reality competition “America’s Next Great Restaurant,” and will appear in Bravo’s upcoming “Top Chef Masters.”
The new items launch nationwide July 5. Poetsch said to expect more Cantina Bell items, since the category would a permanent addition. The company has been test marketing the items in Bakersfield, Calif., and Louisville, Ky., since January.
“You’re going to see a lot of expansion,” he said. “We’re committed to this long term."
Taco Bell is owned by Yum! brands, which also owns KFC and Pizza Hut. Chipotle is an independent company that received a minority investment from McDonald’s, which has since divested itself of the company.