Inside Taco Bell’s Incredible Two-Year Quest to Make the Perfect Quesalupa

A customer pulls apart a Taco Bell Corp. Quesalupa. Photographer: Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Taco Bell
A customer pulls apart a Taco Bell Corp. Quesalupa.
Photographer: Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Taco Bell

A cheese lover on Twitter expressed less than complete satisfaction with the Quesalupa, Taco Bell’s newest and cheesiest menu item. The company’s social-media team was on it.

“Dear @tacobell, Why can’t the quesalupa be as cheesy as your commercials? Sincerely, A customer who would marry cheese,” the tweet read.

The tweet popped up on one of the dozen wall-hung screens that employees monitor in the “Fishbowl” at Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California.

Matt Prince swooped in. As head of the 15-person “newsroom” team, it’s his job to defend and protect what Taco Bell calls The Cheese Pull — the taffy-like web of pepper jack created by pulling apart a Quesalupa. A snag like the one described in the tweet might trigger an e-mail to one of the 6,500 Taco Bell restaurants, reminding staff not to overcook the tortilla or allow the shells to lie around too long after they’ve been fried in canola oil. Taco Bell spent two years perfecting the technique after a decade of noodling with “the cheese-pully thing,” said Liz Matthews, chief food innovation and beverage officer, and it’s betting its future on plenty of cheesy elasticity for maximum customer goo.

Be Amazing

“It’s got to have an amazing, delicious cheese pull in every bite,” Matthews said in an interview in the company’s international test kitchen this month.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of The Cheese Pull to Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum! Brands Inc., which has a $33 billion market value and more than $13 billion in revenue last year. With Yum planning to spin off its China unit and growth otherwise slowing at Taco Bell’s siblings, KFC and Pizza Hut, it’s come down to this: The near-term performance of Yum depends on Taco Bell, and the performance of Taco Bell rests on The Cheese Pull.

“The strongest brand in the portfolio is clearly Taco Bell,” Yum Chief Executive Officer Greg Creed said last month. Yum plans to open the first Taco Bell this year in China, where KFC growth slowed after a supplier scandal in 2014. There’s talk of taking Taco Bell to Australia, too.

Yum’s stock price has rallied 11 percent this year, outpacing the 1.4 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

Sales at established Taco Bell locations jumped 5 percent last year, compared with growth of 1 percent at Pizza Hut and 3 percent for KFC. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.’s recent sales troubles, caused by E. coli and norovirus outbreaks, give the brand an opportunity to attract more fast-foodies.

Taco Bell, founded by Glen Bell in 1962, made its name introducing Americans to quasi-Mexican fare, such as the Bell Beefer and Enchirito. The Gordita came along in 1998, begetting the Chalupa shortly after that. The Quesalupa — a quesadilla-Chalupa mashup — is the latest generation born in the test kitchen.

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SOURCE: Bloomberg