Taco Bell intro extends trend

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Latching onto a phenomenon that's swept the frozen-food category, Taco Bell is preparing an estimated $20 million to $30 million push behind the introduction of Border Bowls, a line of Mexican meals-in-a-bowl.

TheYum Brands unit serves up the line of Mexican rice, meat and bean dishes in late June. The launch follows strong sales resulting from menu additions of Steak Quesadillas and Grilled Stuft Burritos, and Taco Bell is betting this latest premium product will bowl over fast-food consumers. In the freezer case, bowl meals have reached just shy of $500 million in sales, with entries from mega-marketers including Masterfoods, Nestle's Stouffer and ConAgra Foods. Masterfoods' Uncle Ben's line alone-before the addition of its breakfast bowl variety-has surpassed the $189 million sales mark.


Taco Bell was promoting the bowls in test markets with a kitschy TV effort from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, San Francisco. While the agency is said to be prepping a new set of creative executions, an existing 30-second and 60-second spot for the Southwest Steak Border Bowl is set in a corporate boardroom, as five yuppies toss around marketing jargon, discussing the product with another executive by speaker phone.. The spot closes with a voice-over declaring, "If you want the total package you have to think outside the bun."

A Taco Bell spokeswoman wouldn't quantify the media spending for the launch, but said the bowls would be "a major new product introduction for us." An executive with knowledge of the chain's marketing said a key summer product introduction could receive up to $30 million in media weight, or one-sixth of Taco Bell's $180 million media budget.

That's not to say launching a sit-down product in the summer is strategically risk-free. The bowls "make sense" as Taco Bell attempts to broaden its appeal to adults 35 and older, but, said the executive, "the biggest winners for Taco Bell in the past have been based in portability-hand-held food you can eat with one hand in your car. Bowls are not portable."

Recent new products, including the Steak Quesadilla and Grilled Stuft Burritos have ramped up portability as well as ingredient quality, and sales have improved significantly. Even with soft year-over-year comparisons, Taco Bell same-store-sales jumped to a 9% gain in October 2001 after seven straight declining quarters, rising to 12% growth in December to close the fourth quarter at 8%. In the first quarter of 2002, same-store-sales have slowed slightly.

Bowls have been a big winner for Southwestern regional chain El Pollo Loco, which has had them on the menu since 1996. For El Pollo Loco, considered a fast-casual chain with a relatively high check average, it's trio of bowls account for 13% of its Mexican food sales.

Supported mostly by in-store displays, the privately held chain is testing new creative for its Phoenix market via Interpublic Group of Cos.' Dailey & Associates, West Hollywood, Calif.

Harry Balzer, VP at NPDFoodWorld, is bullish on the product, saying that rice bowls have moved rice from the ingredient side dish to the main dish. Rice, however, is included in only 3.5% of all restaurant meals, so it has a long way to go to equal french fries, which are included in one-fourth of every meal.

contributing: alice z. cuneo, stephanie thompson

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