For weeks, people were coming by and pounding on the locked door of Midtown Manhattan's new Taco Bell "cantina"—the chain's hip concept for metropolitan diners, complete with faux-graffitied walls and appropriated street art, beer and booze. But installing a gas line was taking longer than expected, delaying the grand unveiling. So, outside, those strolling by the fast-food establishment were left wanting. Now open, the place is packed every day, a manager, Mohamed Monsur, told me, and patrons inside are completely perplexed, both by the cheap prices in a part of town where there aren't many, and about what, exactly, they've discovered. Was this really a Taco Bell? It's easy to see why they're confused.
If a stoner uncle with a bar in his basement was asked to remodel the chain to appeal to his gaming nephew, it might look something like Taco Bell's latest—touch-screen computers to place your order, a visible assembly line so you can watch a lady shoot a giant sour-cream gun onto a tortilla, a fancy beer tap that pumps the suds into the bottom of the cup. (Yes, there's beer. Hard liquor, too.) At night, near the entrance, a multicolored light shines the company logo onto the busy sidewalk, making it look more like a club than a place for fast, cheap eats. On the weekends, once the bar crowd hits the streets, a security guard stands close to the cash registers like a bouncer. It could be the most affordable—perhaps even the coolest—spot to grab a Corona in the vicinity of Times Square. Good news, indeed, for those looking to keep the party going, though you can't yet book one at the location as you can at some select restaurants.
But the other good news is, in an era when we seem to ask more of our fast-food restaurants than ever before—how can I respect these sorts of institutions if they're not savagely roasting their consumer base online?—Taco Bell is at the forefront of the trend, with its ironic kitsch and blatant targeting of millennials.
"Serving new and younger customers—particularly millennials—who are living in urban markets is a big part of our growth strategy and one of the keys to unlocking our vision of becoming a $15 billion brand by 2022," Rob Poetsch, the senior director of communications and engagement at Taco Bell Corporation, told me over email.
At the start of 2018, just as it was dethroning Burger King as the fourth-largest US chain, Taco Bell revealed its plans for massive expansion, for global domination. It would add 2,500 more stores around the world, jacking up the number from 6,500 to 9,000. It also announced it would increase its metropolitan footprint, increasing its urban- and cantina-style restaurants, like the one in Midtown. In the New York Metro area alone, the Bell intends to introduce 125 stores under the new cantina concept, which Poetsch said was first launched in Chicago and San Francisco in 2015.
What "urban"- or "cantina"-style restaurant entails, exactly, is best described by the Taco Bell press release announcing it:
Whether in the heart of New York City, or steps from the boardwalk in Newport Beach, these restaurants are designed to fit their local community, with open-kitchen concepts, local artwork, shareable tapas-style menus, free WiFi for customers, outlets for charging devices and modern restaurant designs that invite customers to stay and socialize over their meal.
If you don't have a drive-thru, the logic appears to go, why not offer wheels-free diners a frozen Baja Blast spiked with rum or vodka—and a chill place to hang on the cheap since you, likely a millennial, are not having sex, interested in home ownership, or down to spend a bunch of money. At the Midtown location, though I kind of knew what to expect, I still wasn't fully prepared for the trendy Taco Bell with a bar, which will certainly build on the clever brand's ever growing cult of personality.
By now, it's no secret Taco Bell, with its smarter-than-most, ever-evolving marketing strategy (a result, no doubt, of thinking outside the bun), has accomplished the near-impossible. It's a giant corporation kids still think is rad. It's one where its biggest devotees—tongue-in-cheek or not—could see themselves getting married, and one that could sell its own line of clothing at Forever 21. People make pilgrimages to TBHQ in Irvine, California, where they're given tours. It's done this with a near-constant barrage of new and sometimes very self-aware products (breakfast options! Doritos tacos!), all the while attempting to balance its hokey innovations with well-sourced ingredients and a witty Twitter account that rivals Wendy's. As such, we've all collectively decided to forgive (or forget) the chain's E. coli outbreak in December 2006, and instead celebrate the brand, which people enjoy both as a guilty pleasure and with no guilt at all. This is clearly most true on the internet, the fuel for Taco Bell's massive machine, which churns out an never-ending well of content dedicated to its "Live Mas!" ethos, which, in addition to being a way of life, is also a scholarship. ("Not based on your grades or how well you play sports," mind you, but one in awarded to "the next generation of innovators and creators.")
There's a devotion online to Taco Bell you won't find for, say, Subway. In November, for example, a New Jersey writer painstakingly detailed her first time eating at the former—baffled at her ability to get a disgusting amount of food for $18.06. Noisey's own Dan Ozzi endured being in one all day on 4/20. It's been tried by Mexicans who hadn't had it before. We even visited a Taco Bell "club" on St. Patrick's Day in Sin City. ("Because why not?") The company, for its part, pays close attention to all of this, and to social media in particular. In September, the restaurant brought back the beefy crunch burrito (a.k.a. the BCB) for a limited run, having been spurred by the pleas from what's known as the Beefy Crunch Movement.
In Midtown, I hoped to witness the uproar on the world wide web in real-life, and in real-time. I spent a full day there, and at lunch spotted hordes of teenagers—one, Christian Alba, who had been there twice that week. I also met the Tates, a Canadian family visiting New York to see whatever it is Bruce Springsteen is doing on Broadway. They popped in for a snack on their way to dinner. I noticed the three of them taking selfies by a lady dumping cheese into a bucket.
"We were just strolling on by," Jeff, one of the Tates, told me. "I said, 'We've got to go in that place.'"
When I asked what piqued their interest, all of them, as if in a practiced refrain, cited the flat-screen televisions and the promise of Dos Equis—as well as the fact that their Crunch Wrap Supremes were constructed within eyesight.
It was hard for me to fully comprehend Taco Bell's PR and redesign until I was there, among the Midtown workers, and high-schoolers, and Canadian tourists. Hip Taco Bell succeeds, really, because the brand is self-aware enough to pull it off. How else can you explain the ripoff street art on the exterior of the building, or the order lineup digitally rendered on a screen by the pickup section, or the front-row view of the simmering beef being plopped onto tortilla after tortilla, as if you're at a not-so high-end cafeteria? It is entirely transparent—a corporatized wonderland of the 20-to-30-something, who have accepted Taco Bell for what it is.
Put another way: "My new favorite Hell's Kitchen drink is a $6 Baja Blast slushee with a generous shot of vodka," writes Yelp user Eric T. before mentioning that he and others he saw were "crying tears of joy" on opening night. "Yes, this Taco Bell has booze. And it's right on my corner. It even had a DJ."
There was no DJ the night I was there, but I sat at a table as the sun went down and the crowd slowly changed, becoming younger and, not shockingly, more inebriated. In stark comparison to that demographic, an older woman, MaryAnn, who lived across the street and asked that her full name not be used, was waiting for her meal with a look on her face that suggested she had stumbled into another dimension. People gleefully slurped booze-infused frozen Mountain Dew Baja Blast and margaritas, and beer filled from the bottom. Then, seemingly right out of a millennial web series, a man named Chaz Meabon, who, decked out in Chanel and a beret, asked me, rhetorically: "What goes better with Chanel than Taco Bell?"
It was a good question—and, honestly, I'm not sure. But I bet Taco Bell has thought of it already. Naturally, Chaz documented his experience on Instagram. His caption read, in part, "im in heaven."
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