TACO BELL TESTS IMPROVED TASTE--IN INTERIOR DESIGN - MAKEOVER: PINK & PLASTIC LOOK YIELDS TO WOOD AND WROUGHT IRON

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Taco Bell wants to transform its image from the home of cheap, belly-busting fast-food to something more along the lines of Starbucks with a Spanish accent.

The nation's largest Mexican-food chain is testing a new unit design with natural woods, stone counters and wrought-iron touches that may be presented to franchisees by yearend.

"It will have more wood and natural fibers and material vs. some kind of artificial environment," said Kay Stout, chief marketing officer-creative strategist for Landor Associates, San Francisco, which is handling the project. Landor is a division of Young & Rubicam.

ENTICE WIDER AUDIENCE

The idea is to help the 7,000-unit chain shed its fast-food image and entice a wider audience than its core base of young males with a passion for value-price tacos. Once approved, there will be an aggressive rollout, Ms. Stout said.

The new look is part of a broader initiative to upgrade the 35-year-old chain. First came spiffier advertising from agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif. Then came new products with higher-quality ingredients such as white-meat chicken. A handful of test units with variations on the new design have been opened in southern California and New Orleans.

A spokeswoman for Taco Bell, a division of Tricon Global Restaurants, said no decision has been made about expansion.

STERILE AND IMPERSONAL

Research showed consumers viewed Taco Bell as a sterile, impersonal place, Ms. Stout said.

Out are bolted-down plastic benches in favor of moveable wooden chairs. The chain's signature bright purple will be reduced to an accent, and there will be no more hot pink. Also, there will be a more distinct separation between the dining area and the front counter, to communicate that the restaurants are places to enjoy dining.

Rather than hard-sell promotional posters, the dining area has elegant photos of food in frames.

Taco Bell's bell-shaped logo will stay, but other changes include new menu boards for inside and at the drive-through window with new photos of combo meals.

This comes amid stiff competition in the $100 billion fast-food business, and at a time when other big players such as Burger King Corp. and sister Tricon brand Pizza Hut are treating themselves to makeovers to freshen up for the 21st century.

"Given the cluttered nature of the fast-food environment, another way of drawing attention is to give yourself a new look," said Ron Paul, president of restaurant consultancy Technomic. "Tastes are getting a little bit more sophisticated. The expectation is that everything will get nicer."

The key is to sell it to franchisees, and prove that the capital costs will pay off, Mr. Paul noted.

The price tag for the new design, which affects mostly interiors, could not be determined. One franchisee familiar with the plans called it a "positive evolution."

A Taco Bell employee familiar with one New Orleans-area test unit said customers like the new look.

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