As Brits get ‘more receptive’, the Mexican-inspired brand’s international president is bringing it back to London as part of an accelerating growth strategy
US brand Taco Bell first tried - and failed - to crack British high streets back in the 1980s.
“We didn’t last that long,” admits international president Liz Williams. “People weren’t ready for the brand. We were positioned as just a Mexican-inspired brand and we’re so much more than that, and I think our attempt at coming in, in hindsight, wasn’t great. We also went to some really high-rent areas, built big restaurants in really expensive places that were hard economically to get to work.”
By the 1990s its three outlets in London, and one in Birmingham, had all closed and it would be nearly two decades before the ‘Mexican-inspired’ fast food chain tried again. When it returned in 2010, it was with a new “more thoughtful” strategy, moving out of the maelstrom of central London and into more strategic spots at the likes of Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex, with lower “more reasonable” rents and less competition.
“We learned you can be just as successful having an outlet on a high street in a smaller town, or in a mall or food court location,” adds Williams. “It’s a lot easier to educate people on the brand in a smaller environment, like Manchester or Liverpool; you can break through more easily.”
“We learned you can be just as successful having an outlet on a high street in a smaller town, or in a mall or food court location”
Its rollout has been slow (or thoughtful) ever since, only 27 restaurants opened in nine years - none of which are in London. This year though it will venture back into the capital with three openings - in Holborn, Hammersmith and Fulham - as part of plans to reach 35 outlets by the end of 2018. What’s changed? Quite simply Brits “are more receptive” to the brand and its menu of ‘Crunchwraps’, cheesy quesadillas and naked chicken tacos, believes Williams. She and her team are also far more experienced in entering international markets, too.
Alongside more than 7,000 US restaurants (generating $10bn in revenues and $600m in profit) Taco Bell has now taken its brand to no fewer than 27 countries, 20 of which have been visited by Williams during her first year running the international business. After London she’ll jet off to Costa Rica. The aim is to open 1,000 restaurants outside the US by 2021. “I knew there was a lot of opportunity but I think there’s more opportunity for growth than I imagined. It’s now just a question of how do you prioritise, how do you focus?”
Before committing to enter a new market, Williams looks at “is the category established enough, do consumers know Mexican food and like it? Though that doesn’t mean everyone has to know Mexican food - we entered China a couple of years ago and trust me there are still a lot questions on how you eat a taco.” Then there is whether “there is a pull for the brand and consumer readiness” and - finally - supply chain. “How do you get that set up in a competitive cost structure? We want to be an innovative brand that’s affordable.” That can be particularly tricky in markets like Brazil, where legal restrictions require all foods to be sourced locally. Elsewhere it’s a mix of local fresh produce with meats and other ingredients sourced from further afield.
Name: Liz Williams
Family: Married - I just had my 20th anniversary actually - and I have two kids, a nine-year-old boy and seven-year-old girl.
Potted CV: I’ve been with [Taco Bell parent] Yum for eight years. I joined doing corporate strategy, then became CFO for Taco Bell. Before that I worked for BCG consulting and before that in the hi-tech world working for Dell.
Career highlight: Being part of all the growth of Taco Bell. We’re going into our seventh year of same-store sales growth in the US across all metrics. Being charged with the responsibility to take that growth globally is a huge honour and privilege.
Steepest learning curve: So many. We say fail fast, fail cheap. If you want an innovative culture you have to embrace failure.
Business ethos: Be kind.
Best piece of advice you’ve been given: There’s two: if you never do, you never know. And treat others how you want to be treated.
Death row meal: A Taco Bell Crunchwrap.
The ethos for the brand’s international restaurants is “globally consistent but locally relevant,” says Williams, which sounds suspiciously like empty corporate speak, but basically means there might be local artwork on the walls but a taco has to taste like a taco wherever in the world you enter a Taco Bell. “I had a Crunchwrap today at the office, which tasted very similar to the Crunchwrap I had two weeks ago in Tokyo, and the one I had in China and the one I had in the US - but then we encourage markets to have a few products with a local twist.”
Head to Cyprus and you can drizzle tzatziki sauce on your burrito, or stuff crayfish into your taco in China, or swap meat for paneer in India, where about 50% of orders are vegetarian. And in the UK? “Well, we were talking in our Woking test kitchen today about trends and I was noticing on so many of the menus round here you’ve got so much halloumi. You guys have such a dessert culture too, so we looked at a lot of desserts.”
On trends distinct to the British QSR scene though, Williams doesn’t have too much to say. “I think at the end of the day it’s more similar than it is different in that people want innovation and new craveable delicious food but they want it at a price point that’s affordable.
“They don’t want to be hindered by ordering off a value menu but have food they can really enjoy, and they want an element of choice. One day they might want something indulgent, the next order off a part of our menu where you can do things fresco style, so lower-calorie, like a grilled chicken, without sauce, and more veg. Or one day you’ll eat vegetarian - our menu offers that. I think we stand apart from the rest of our category in that we have a lot of choice.”
Tackling perceptions around fast food and health “is hard” though. “Especially because many times people say they want to eat healthily and then they don’t. So we work at that every day. I think it’s being really deliberate about showing consumers all the choices we have and being really transparent. On our website, you can find out the ingredients for absolutely everything. There’s nothing to hide, everything is out there.” And whether spoilt-for-choice Londoners embrace it this time is up to them.