Taco Bell is taking another stab at the China market, after closing down its few locations there in 2008. The first new restaurant officially launched this week amid the skyscrapers of Shanghai's Pudong district, following a soft opening. When Ad Age visited at lunchtime, it was packed with local office workers and a few expats and tourists.
Mexican-inspired food has never taken off in China, but maybe the time is right, with China's middle class traveling more and wanting to try foreign flavors. "If you never try, you'll never know" is a slogan that appears in the restaurant and on the brand's account on WeChat, the mobile app. Ad Age tried it, and there were a few surprises.
There's beer on tap, and it's Japanese. Some U.S. Taco Bells already serve alcohol. The Shanghai location serves Japanese brand Asahi on tap, along with three frozen drinks – a mojito, a green margarita and a pinky gin.
It adjusted for local tastes, to a point. Yum China Holdings, which owns the new restaurant, said it has "thoroughly researched and fine-tuned the Taco Bell menu for China." But if you're picturing tacos topped with Sichuan pepper, think again – any adjustments are more subtle than that. Localized beverage offerings include oolong milk tea, hot or iced, and iced green tea with tangy calamansi citrus fruits floating in it. One menu innovation is a shrimp and avocado burrito. Avocados, which are literally called "butterfruit" in Chinese, were once mostly unknown in China. But they've been taking off – Shanghai-based Daxue Consulting says avocado consumption grew 127-fold between 2010 and 2014.
It's nearby the new Pizza Hut with robot greeters. Yum China Holdings, which launched the Taco Bell, also recently opened a Pizza Hut concept restaurant called ph+ in the basement of China's tallest skyscraper, where robots greet customers at the door. That tower is visible out the window from the new Taco Bell. The company spun off from Louisville, Kentucky-based Yum Brands late last year into a separately traded stock; the Taco Bell and the robot-staffed Pizza Hut are its first two big efforts. The Taco Bell brand is planning an international expansion, increasing from 300 restaurants outside the U.S. to 1,000 by 2022, and China figures in those plans.
It's as chic as Taco Bell gets. The new Taco Bell has an upscale feel, apparently inspired by the brand's "cantina" restaurants in the U.S., which have open kitchens, urban designs and booze on the menu. Food is served in plastic baskets, not greasy wrappers. Surfboards decorate the ceiling. The kitchen is open and stocked with baskets of fresh fruit. Portions are big, with prices to match. A burrito meal, with drink and fries, runs at over $6, and a large side of nachos with a scoop of salsa and guacamole is $4.
There's no restroom. For a restaurant with beer on tap, it might be convenient to have toilets on the premises. But fast food restaurants in China don't necessarily have restrooms, and neither does the new Taco Bell. There's just a sink for washing your hands. A staff member pointed the way to the public toilets, out the door and to the left.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., Taco Bell said this week that it plans to start selling the Naked Chicken Chalupa nationwide on Jan. 26, following limited tests in 2015 and 2016. It features a piece of fried chicken shaped like a taco shell folded around lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and an avocado ranch.