How Taco Bell Broke Out of Its Shell

By 
Pat Cobe, Senior Editor, Restaurant Business

IRVINE, Calif. -- A text from outside the R&D department was the seed for Taco Bell’s latest mashup, the Naked Chicken Chalupa (above). “There’s not an o­fficial text submission program, but there is an openness that ideas aren’t the product of team brainstorms during work hours,” says Matt Prince, PR and brand engagement manager, adding that the chain looks to many sources for its rapidfire launches. This one idea sounded crazy, but it inspired the team. And with the growing demand for fried chicken, the timing was right for Taco Bell, CMO Marisa Thalberg told AdAge.

Same equipment, new food

The “naked” in the name describes how the chicken is “exposed,” because it doesn’t have the usual tortilla or chalupa shell exterior, says Prince. While forming chicken into a taco shape required a new method, the equipment was familiar to team members: It’s the same kitchen fry tool the chain uses to make its waffle tacos.

An ‘anti-campaign’ to build buzz

After testing the chalupa in California and Kansas, Taco Bell promoted the national launch by creating the bogus “Council for Eating Fried Chicken the Same Way You Always Have.” The campaign warned diners about the dangers of being too innovative by eating the nontraditional take on fried chicken.

Going underground

To keep the insider vibe going, the council idea was activated experientially in a two-day Taco Bell Speakeasy in Manhattan, featuring free Naked Chicken Chalupas and cocktails. Taco Bell partnered with media outlet Foodbeast to identify and tap local food influencers to attend, says Prince. To add to the intrigue, diners had to call a “secret” hotline posted on Twitter to reserve one of the 500 spots, which sold out both days.

Fan feedback

While Taco Bell declined to share numbers, “sales of the Naked Chicken Chalupa are following in the footsteps of some of our most innovative products, including the Quesalupa and Doritos Locos Tacos,” says Prince. The latter did more than $1 billion in sales in the first 20 months after its launch, according to Bloomberg News.

What’s Next

The Naked Chicken Chalupa was planned as a limited-time offer (LTO) and ran until the end of March. But Taco Bell has a history of creating demand by taking items off the menu, only to return them later. “Because the Naked Chicken Chalupa proved to be popular ... we’re confident it will be returning in the future,” says Prince. Riffing on the success of an LTO isn’t unfamiliar to Taco Bell, either: It’s now testing a spicy Wild Naked Chicken Chalupa in the Kansas City, Kan., market. Currently available in Taco Bell's across the country: the Naked Egg Taco (pictured above), for which the fried egg serves as a shell.