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Taco Bell + booze – burbs = Cantina


Taco Bell Cantinas don’t have drive-thrus and do serve alcohol, in hopes of attracting urban customers.

By tweaking its menu, ditching the drive-thru and adding alcohol, Irvine-California-based Taco Bell is offering city dwellers a more modern version of itself that aligns with an oft-reported generational shift back toward urban centers.

Whether urban, younger customers will like a new version of Taco Bell, the ultimate expression of fast food for the masses, remains to be seen. Either way it will provide an interesting test for an old-school brand trying to become something new.

The first Taco Bell Cantina opened in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood in September and the second opened shortly afterward in San Francisco. And this isn’t just a skittish testing of the waters; Taco Bell views its new Cantinas as a crucial part of its ongoing growth strategy.

Hitting all of the millennial buzzwords, the global taco giant says its Cantina concept is centered on urbanization, digitization (fancy menu boards, mobile ordering), localization (architecture that fits the neighborhood), energy efficiency and transparency (open kitchens).

“Each one will be much more of a snowflake to reflect the local community and respect the architecture of the existing buildings,” said Meredith Sandland, Taco Bell’s chief development officer. The Chicago and San Francisco stores “have completely different layouts.”

She said Cantinas will remain a tiny part of the brand compared with its massive global footprint. The company may eventually build some 300 Cantinas. By contrast, it plans to add 2,000 traditional Taco Bells over the next decade in the U.S., up 30 percent from now.

A quick check of Yelp reviews for the new Cantinas reveals a sense of wonder at a non-suburban, alcohol-serving TB. “I feel I am a part of history,” wrote Emily B. of Chicago.

Ryan L., another Chicagoan, was more effusive: “The setup is nice and there are outlets everywhere, which is good for lingering. Open kitchen so you can watch the magic of creating a Nachos BellGrande. I’m sure this will be a huge hit,” he wrote. “They’ll be serving booze once they open, which is 7 a.m.—that’s hilarious."

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