Taco Bell in mid-June unveiled its latest uniform collaboration, tapping Brooklyn-based artist Ricardo Gonzalez, known as “It’s a Living,” to introduce exclusive team member apparel. The streetwear-inspired collection includes a commemorative shirt and hat with the saying “family is everything.”

Taco Bell sent the uniforms to employees across the country with a note from CEO Mark King. With roots in Durango, Mexico, Gonzalez is a designer and graphic artist whose signature script style can be seen in large-scale murals globally. 

As noted, the “It’s a Living” partnership marked the second installment in an ongoing annual series of team member-driven collaborations. In 2022, Taco Bell partnered with Los Angeles-based streetwear brand Born and Raised in honor of the brand’s 60th anniversary.  

QSR caught up with Kelly McCulloch, Taco Bell’s global chief people and transformation officer, to discuss the launch, how it aligns with the brand’s people-first approach, and why it resonates well beyond the first glance.

TacBring us into the inspiration process.

This is our second installment of what’s going to be an ongoing series. It’s a way for us to honor and thank our team members. It was cooked up by our chief brand officer, Sean Tresvant, right before he joined, and we did our first one last year with “Born and Raised.” So as we looked to figure out what we were going to do this year, it was with Ricardo Gonzalez. He’s originally from Mexico, based in Brooklyn, and does some really cool stuff. It jives with our brand. He’s a people-first guy and that’s who we are. It made sense. We’re going to send out 260,000 T-shirts and hats across all of our restaurants here in the U.S.

Is there’s a broader fast-food conversation around uniforms we should be having?

It’s evolved a lot. We can think back to the days of the unattractive button-ups and other things that were quintessential to fast food. I personally believe that we have uniforms now that our team members are proud to wear. In fact, you can see in the way they wear them, right? Their shoulders are back a little bit more. Especially when you do these collabs. If I go into restaurants and see team members wearing the shirt from the first series we did with “Born and Raised,” their faces light up. They’re very excited to wear it because it’s cool. It’s not just a stodgy, corporate uniform. This is a hey, my employer, whether that’s us at corporate or franchisees, they see me. They know what’s important to me. They know what I think is cool. They know what I value. And they’re trying to help me express that. It’s a huge deal.

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Taco Bell employees received their gear with a note from CEO Mark King.

Can uniforms almost serve as a word-of-mouth tool with recruiting as well? Say somebody sees a peer wearing it, etc.

It’s funny, you can see that a lot of times in comments when people post about working at Taco bell. The uniform gets mentioned. ‘The uniform is cool. I like it. I don’t mind wearing the uniform.’ It definitely plays into it. We’ve got a lot of things going on to help this, but we have seen our application flow go up pretty significantly in the first half of the year. And it’s not just the uniform, it’s a whole bunch of stuff combined together. But it definitely plays a part.

Elaborate on that a bit, if you could. How is that coming together?

We can’t have a leaky bucket. You can go out and you can do all of your employment marketing and drive your applicant flow up, and we certainly do that, but once you get them, what are you going to do to continue to develop them, grow them, show them that you see them and you accept them? We have tons of programs that help us with that. We’ve also seen our retention numbers go up, and the uniform is just a piece of it. It’s one more thing that we’re doing as we continue to try to put our team members first and make sure that we walk that talk; that we don’t just say we’re people first. We really are, and we really do mean it.

It’s always felt like Taco Bell’s employment initiatives come back to the overall lifestyle brand nature of the chain. Has that been an evolving conversation—how to take the marketing of Taco Bell’s positioning and bring it to the front lines?

This is my love language, Danny. I love the partnership that my team has with our marketing team, because of what you just said. The consumer and the team member are one and the same. They’re stakeholder 1A and 1B and they can flip-flop constantly. Over the past couple of years, we have had a lot more conversations—ongoing, continuous conversations—about how do we create the kind of culture we want to create in our restaurants. To create the kind of environments where we’re truly listening to our employees, our team members, and how do we build out the capabilities of our franchisees to do the same. A couple of weeks ago, at one of our big franchise meetings, we talked about how everyone has a roadmap for how they’re going to attract talent. What’s our plan going to be? In our restaurants, we also have a plan for the environment and the culture that we want to create. You have to be very intentional about it and you have to stay in tune with what’s going in the world and with culture. It’s why it makes sense for us to partner with “It’s a Living”—it’s on-culture. And this is what our team members are into.

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Looking ahead to 2024 and beyond, Taco Bell said it will continue to seek out partnerships that celebrate differences, champion its people and reflect the brand’s roots in culture.

It’s interesting to me how few people talk about the fact employees are generally customers of a brand first, especially in quick service where so many workers are entering the labor force for the first time.

If they love the brand as a consumer and they come in and that experience doesn’t match what they believed the brand to be—that’s a problem. We work very hard so it reflects that and they stay a fan of the brand. It’s interesting. We just pulled a stat the other day that 54 percent of our restaurant general managers in our company restaurants started out as team members, which is pretty significant. I know that’s a big number for a lot of our larger franchise organizations as well. So you’re right. They’re initially attracted because they’re a consumer, they like the brand, and they get here, and a number of them stay for a while and grow their career with us. It’s cool to see it all come together.

Talk about the “Family is Everything” slogan with this launch. It speaks for itself, but where did it stem from?

Here’s why it jumped out to us. Every time we survey our team members across our restaurants, or our franchisees do the same, the word “family” comes up frequently. So many people join us and they may have a wonderful family life. They may have a great family life at home. They come to Taco Bell and Taco Bell becomes an extension, it’s their community. We have other people who join us who don’t have that. Taco Bell and the team they work on and the managers they work for—that is their family. They’ve told me that time and time again as we visit restaurants. We had a young man in Detroit say, ‘I could never find my place. I’m different. I know I’m different. And now I’ve finally found my place where I’m accepted for who I am and can be who I want to be. This is my family.’ We’re excited for this. We think it’s going to resonate with our managers and team members because it is a word used so frequently when we ask them why they like working here.

Employee Management, Fast Food, Story, Taco Bell