Taco Bell Does Breakfast, We Do a Taste Test

By Drea Knufken  FEB 01, 2012 10:45 AM

Breakfast sales have been responsible for virtually all growth in the restaurant industry over the past five years, but Taco Bell's offerings suggest its menu will need some tinkering.

 


Is there a pot of gold at the end of Taco Bell’s breakfast burrito? Parent company Yum Brands (YUM) seems to hope so. Last Thursday, Taco Bell unveiled its FirstMeal series of breakfast foods, featuring co-branded treats such as Cinnabon Delights, Seattle’s Best Coffee, and Johnsonville sausage-egg wraps. The menu is being tested in some 800 restaurants across the Western region.
 
Taco Bell is late to the fray, with Wendy’s (WEN), Burger King, Subway, Jack in the Box (JACK), Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s (MCD), and other main players already serving breakfast. But the Mexican food chain, which makes up 60% of Yum Brands’ profits, has been losing revenue ever since a lawsuit last year challenged the beef content of its meat filling. In order to bring back the bacon, Yum followed the well-worn path of its competitors in pursuit of the morning crowd.
 
Better late than never. Recession-hobbled US consumers are eating out for breakfast, rather than lunch or dinner. Breakfast is responsible for “virtually all of the (restaurant) industry’s growth in the past five years,” according to the Christian Science Monitor. Sales of breakfast sandwiches rose 19% between 2005 and 2010, according to the NPD Group. Fast-food breakfast pioneer McDonald's makes 30% of its total restaurant sales from a.m. eaters. The company helped reignite interest in breakfasts in 2007 with the openings of its McCafe outlets.

More recently, Wendy's also announced that it would be revamping its breakfast menu. Unlike Taco Bell, Wendy's is focusing on selected fresh, premium products, like artisan egg sandwiches, and "mornin' melt paninis." The company says that last year, its breakfast menu attracted $150,000 in additional sales per store.
 
How Taco Bell Breakfast Measures Up
Could the fast-Mex master create a better breakfast burrito than the competition? I drove to my local Denver Taco Bell to find out. Breakfast is only served between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m., in accordance with the eating habits of Taco Bell’s target audience of 18- to 20-year-olds. In another nod to that demographic, the bold, pink-lettered FirstMeal sign seems to suggest more of a hangover remedy than a workday prelude.
 
Once at Taco Bell — where the only customers were two scraggly-looking 40-somethings — I asked the manager whether many people had purchased breakfast in the past week.
 
“Yeah, it’s really popular,” he said. “Taco Bell gave every Colorado location 4,000 free breakfast coupons to give away, so a lot of people have been coming in.”
 
That didn’t explain much. What did stand out was that at 9 a.m., the place was nearly empty, and the only new customer who came in was trying to return his Bacon and Egg Burrito.
 
Curious, I ordered the Bacon and Egg Burrito ($0.99), followed by:
Here’s what it looked like:


Photo: Drea Knufken
 

Upon first bite, the Bacon and Egg Burrito presented itself as a food engineering failure. It was dry, salty, and stuffed with cubes of soggy, furiously pink bacon whose overwhelming smell canceled out any other flavors, in this case tortilla and reconstituted egg. I put it in a bag to give my dog.
 
The hash brown, roughly the size and thickness of a scouring sponge, sweated grease through its white paper bag. Crispy at the edges, it tasted like it had come from a food-lab bottle labeled “Hash Brown.” It left an oil-slick finish on my tongue. I saw it as more of a utilitarian booze-soaking device than an actual breakfast food. Next.
 
The Cinnabon Delights looked like yummy little cinnamon-encrusted donut holes and tasted like texture-enhanced spoonfuls of sugar. I used Seattle’s Best coffee as a solvent for the sweet residue they left behind in my mouth. Though a touch watery, the coffee was aromatic and altogether decent.
 
At the end, the Johnsonville sausage wrap redeemed the meal. The juicy and genuinely flavorful sausage patty offset the wrap’s crumbly eggs and, for that matter, the rest of the food I’d eaten. If I had to do it all again, I’d only order the coffee and the sausage wrap, except I’d take the sausage patty out of its tortilla and eat it plain, because that’s the tastiest way to have the wrap.
 
Would I eat a Taco Bell breakfast again? Considering the diverse offerings of the competition, I’d be hard-pressed to motivate myself back. If they manage to moisten their eggs, mellow out their bacon, and add some of their regular menu’s originality to their breakfast line (breakfast chalupa?), I might think about it. But for now, the competition is just, well, yummier.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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