Earlier this year, Taco Bell brought on celebrity chef Lorena Garcia as a consultant for its new "Cantina Bell" menu, aiming to take a chunk out of rival Tex-Mex purveyor Chipotle Mexican Grill's, er, avocado.
Has the gambit paid off? It would seem so.
Consumer opinion of Taco Bell has become significantly more positive since early July, when the Yum! Brands behemoth rolled out Cantina Bell, featuring a burrito, a burrito bowl and a smattering of sides including tortilla chips and salsa.
Over the summer, the British company YouGov conducted a survey of Tex-Mex fast-food consumers in which it asked respondents to answer the question: "Does this brand represent high quality or low quality?" Taco Bell's score improved from a 14 on July 5 to a 25 in early October, when YouGov released the survey results. Chipotle, which had posted a score of 32 on July 5, had dipped to 28. (YouGov's BrandIndex scale ranges from 100 to -100 and is computed by subtracting negative feedback from positive; a score of 0 would indicate equal negative and positive feedback.)
Food for thought, indeed!
Of course, had YouGov consulted Gut Check regarding methodology, we'd have suggested pollsters at least consider whether consumers know what the hell they're talking about. We're familiar with Taco Bell's bill of fare and Chipotle's too, and having ingested all of this stuff, we're confident in declaring that while both have their own niche in the Gut Check Food Pyramid, when you compare, say, a Cantina Bell burrito bowl to a Chipotle burrito bowl, it ain't even close.
In conceiving the Cantina Bowl, Lorena Garcia (you might have caught her on the recently completed season 4 of Bravo's Top Chef Masters) and Taco Bell did a pretty thorough job in stealing a page out of Chipotle's recipe book. The Cantina Bell website invites us to:
"Experience our new citrus-herb marinated chicken, flavorful black beans, guacamole made from real Hass avocados, roasted corn & pepper salsa, a creamy cilantro dressing, and freshly prepared pico de gallo, all served on a bed of cilantro rice. Also available in Steak or Veggie."
You can, if you like, create yourself a Chipotle bowl that's a little fancier, but for purposes of comparison, it's easy to order a version that's nearly identical to the Cantina Bowl, which is what Gut Check did.
We weren't surprised to find that Chipotle charges more for its bowl than Taco Bell does. While the Cantina Bowl checks in at $4.99, the Chipotle bowl cost us $8.05, in part owing to the fact that Chipotle charges an extra $1.80 if you want guacamole.
We were tempted to write off the price difference to quality of ingredients. For example, Chipotle prides itself on serving meat from animals that "are raised in a humane way, fed a vegetarian diet, never given hormones and allowed to display their natural tendencies." If Taco Bell works with barnyards where all manner of natural tendencies are on display, we couldn't find any evidence of it on the Cantina Bell website.
Similarly, a quick glance at nutritional-information figures makes Taco Bell's dish appear healthier than Chipotle's: fewer calories, less fat and carbohydrates.
Look closer, though, and those first impressions disappear faster than a platter of Doritos Locos Tacos at a Colorado NORML convention. Chipotle's bowl is one and a half times bigger than the competition. If the serving sizes were equal, then the nutritional information would look something like this:
Presto! It's Chipotle's bowl that contains 14 percent fewer calories, 22 percent less fat and 15 percent fewer carbs. (It's also 18 percent lower in salt and packs 20 percent more fiber and protein.) Gram for gram, the prices are actually comparable, with Chipotle's natural tendencies commanding a modest 12 percent premium.
We're not going to tell you Chipotle's burrito bowl tastes better than Taco Bell's -- we figure you'd be the best judge of that. (By the way, in the photo pair above, the Cantina Bowl is the one on the right.)
We did, though, put in calls to both companies to chat about Battle Burrito. Taco Bell didn't get back to us, but Chipotle communications director Chris Arnold was happy to talk. Asked for his take on the BrandIndex survey, Arnold tells Gut Check, "I don't think what Taco Bell does in any aspect of their business has any real impact on us. I think our customers are very, very different. I think the way we run our business is very, very different. I think the way we source ingredients and cook food is very, very different. And I think people understand that."
Adds Arnold: "According to Taco Bell, the Cantina Bell menu only accounts for 5 percent of their sales."
Regardless, the company seems sufficiently buoyed by the 5 percent effect to expand the Cantina Bell menu.
Expect a new quesadilla in November and a steak dish in January.