Taco Bell Headquarters and Test Kitchen: Irvine, California
As some of you may know already, last week I experienced what some have dubbed a “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” experience. Invited by the nice folks at Taco Bell, I made my way from the rain drenched East Coast to the sunny skies of Southern California (well, sunny once you get passed the morning May Gray/June Gloom that plagues the area around this time of year). Irvine, California, to be more specific, the home of the headquarters of Mexican fast food giant Taco Bell. The visit’s intention was for Taco Bell to host an event for a select group of food bloggers to get an inside look of what’s new at Taco Bell.
Let’s get some details out of the way. There were about 5 of us bloggers on Day 1 and on Day 2, John from SoGoodBlog and Elie from FoodBeast joined in on the festivities. Day 1 really just consisted of travel (for me it was Baltimore, MD to St. Louis, MO to Las Vegas, NV to Orange County, CA). Once touching down at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, I took the hotel shuttle to the hotel which was literally a stones throw away. After checking in and getting settled, I took a look at an envelope that included the 2-day itinerary and a bunch of Taco Bell Bucks…woohoo! Seeing as though at this point it’s around 4pm and I’m just getting my bearings together, I hop to it to get ready to leave again. A 4:30pm scheduled shuttle to take the group to Michael Kang’s Five Feet Restaurant in Laguna Beach. The cast of characters making their way to this dinner… EpicPortions, Endless Simmer, Scott Roberts Web, Food Facts and Pleasure Palate. We were hosted by Deborah Bell, Lauren Lloyd and Will Bortz, who were kind enough to get the group out for this visit. The dinner at Five Feet was impressive and the owner and staff were very accommodating. John from Epic Portions and I contemplated ordering a $7,500.00 bottle of wine from the huge selection but we figured $15 bottles of Chimay was damage enough. Sometime in the future, look out for a more detailed write-up of the restaurant. A post dinner walk down to the beach was just what I needed after stuffing my face with beer, wine, goat cheese wontons, catfish, shrimp, tuna, boneless BBQ short ribs, mashed potatoes, Creme Brule etc, etc, etc. The walk down to the beach was followed by a visit to the Marine Room Tavern to check out some live music and watch the Cavaliers hand away yet another game to the Orlando Magic. The night ended with a handful of us left, at a Belgian-style bar/restaurant called Brussels Bistro.
On Day 2, the actual visit to the Taco Bell HQ took place. A 10:30am start, we made our way to the gigantic hotel sized building. We could’ve taken the shuttle, but everything is so close, we just took a brief 5 minute walk to the building. On our way to the building we are given a brief talk about some of the things we’ll see and a review of the itinerary. Upon entering the building, to the immediate right is a cafeteria area that sort of resembled a Taco Bell restaurant, but on a much bigger scale. On the walls there are displays of current Taco Bell promos and items such as the Volcano Menu, the Fruitista Freeze drinks and the New! Grilled Chicken Taco and Burrito. At the end of the cafeteria-esque area is a spot that resembles a food court for Yum! brands. Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC are among some of the choices.
- I don’t know if what I was seeing was a sea of spokesmodels, but when I think of someone who works for Taco Bell, I don’t expect to see what I saw. The ladies employed here might claim to grub on Taco Bell frequently, but they must work out a lot and stick to the Fresco menu.
- We probably covered about 5% of that building. As I said before, it was HUGE. For the most part, we were free to take pictures at will, but there were some areas that were off limits to pictures. At one point I was left behind on the tour and went on my own snooping around. Of course I don’t have pictures of it but I did see Cesar Millan getting into an argument with the Taco Bell Chihuahua. I guess his past success has turned him into a nightmare to work with. Now you know why you haven’t seen him in years.
- Sadly, I couldn’t get passed the door marked “Nacho Cheese Swimming Pool”.
The reception/lobby area of the building doubles as a sort of Hall of History. At this lobby area we were given some background information on the company from Public Relations Manager Will Bortz. There is a time line of Taco Bell along one wing of this room. Complete with display cases of certain promotions such as the Star Wars ad campaign, another display case with some stuffed Chihuahua dolls and another with a brick from the first Taco Bell restaurant. I thought it was pretty cool that there were also displays of food packaging throughout the years.
When the history lesson and tour wrapped up, we made our way to the test kitchen. It would be cool to say we were blindfolded and taken deep underground to this top secret area but we weren’t. Through doors and some more doors, and across about 2 or 3 sterile looking kitchens equipped with people in lab coats (no pictures allowed in this area) we found our way to the actual test kitchen. This test kitchen, we were told, is normally reserved for franchise owners and advertisers that come in to get a first hand look at new menu items. We were greeted by Taco Bell food innovators Kat and Megan. It was pretty interesting to be in a room listening to the top dogs of the Taco Bell menu creation.
We were shown television commercials for the two new Volcano Menu items and given a detailed explanation of how the Volcano menu and the Lava Sauce came to be. Before they settled with the cheesy Lava Sauce, some other ideas for a spicier menu item included alterations like spicier seasoned meat and spicier shells/tortillas. Before the Volcano Menu and the Lava Sauce, there really wasn’t anything hot enough to satisfy the taste buds of those who can really take the heat. The Scoville Scale was brought up (a heat measure) and the Volcano Lava Sauce (800 SHU-Scoville Heat Units) was compared to Taco Bell’s Fire Sauce (500 SHU) in terms of heat. If you want to learn more about spicy foods and someone who really knows spicy food, check out Scott Roberts’ site. The thing you have to remember that it’s not just heat, it’s taste. Give me a cheesy hot sauce on a taco/burrito any day over just plain hot sauce. The bottom line is that the Lava Sauce packs the heat and is tasty to match. We were told the Volcano Menu will be introducing a new family member on August 3rd. My money is on a Volcano Crunchwrap. It’s a no brainer, the Crunchwrap is one of the most popular menu items at Taco Bell and it’s sure to be a success as a Volcano item.
When the presentations were complete, we were invited to create something of our own. This was a pretty tough task considering how many options were available. Creations that crossed my mind included a Volcano Chicken Crunchwrap and a Volcano-style Chicken Nachos. The Origami-esque Crunchwrap creation seemed a bit too intimidating to me so I settled for creating what I’m calling Fully Loaded Cheesy Volcano Chicken Nachos. It’s tortilla chips smothered with nacho cheese, a grated cheese blend and strips of marinated chicken put in the 8-second heater to give it an extra melt and then topped with pico de gallo, Lava Sauce and cooled down with some sour cream. It was a thing of beauty and after my Volcano Taco and Volcano Double Beef Burrito I still finished the nachos. All that spicy food was cooled down with a Pina Colada Fruitista Freeze.
There was a lot of Q and A in the test kitchen although a bunch unconfirmed…
- Any chance of a Mexican Sandwich aka Torta? It could happen. It’s been considered.
- What about a Taco Bell Breakfast menu? Currently going through testing.
- Is the next Volcano menu item a Volcano Crunchwrap? Can’t say just yet.
- Any new Mt. Dew exclusives coming? There’s always something going on behind the scenes.
To wrap everything up, I’d just like to thank everyone involved once again. It was a very interesting inside-look into the fast food giant. I can’t say enough good things about the experience. Now I know what some may be thinking…Can you be critical about Taco Bell after a trip like this? The answer is yes, of course. It definitely helps that I’m a Taco Bell fan, but if there’s something that doesn’t vibe with me, I’ll give my opinion on it (I wasn’t a fan of the Triple Steak Burrito that came out late last year). The bottom line is that we are all critics. Something I love can also be something someone else hates. I’m just here to give my personal take on things and if you enjoy reading about it, I appreciate your opinions and comments as well.
Thanks to Lauren, Deb and Will for having us out.
(If you’d like to see more pics, there is a photo album up on my Facebook page. Let’s be friends. Oh yeah, also, I took video of the trip but I’ve had a nightmare time editing it. Lots of shaky-cam to give Cloverfield a run for it’s money. Sorry, new camera. I’ll post it up as a bonus or something someday if I get it somewhat watchable without a barf bag)