Few quick-service menu launches make the news quite like those from Taco Bell. From the Doritos Locos Taco and the Waffle Taco to the Quesalupa and the Cheesy Core Burrito, the Mexican chain’s new menu items the last few years have been national events as much as they’ve been new options for customers nationwide.

But for all the buzz it creates across the country, the innovation process at Taco Bell goes far beyond gimmicks. Melissa Friebe, vice president of Taco Bell’s Insights Lab, isn’t trying to make headlines with product ideas. She’s simply responding to consumer demand.

“One of the things that we hold ourselves to is that there has to be a reason why we create the product,” Friebe says during a September tour of the Insights Lab. “Whether we’re looking at food culture [or] pop culture, or looking at conventional things and twisting them up—they’re always grounded in a consumer need.”

Just look at the company’s next big 2017 menu launch: the Naked Crispy Chicken Chalupa. It ditches the fried tortilla shell for a flattened, breaded chicken breast. The impetus for that item? Customers were asking for something unique with chicken and spice.

The menu hits have kept coming since 2012, when Taco Bell rocked fans’ worlds with the groundbreaking Doritos Locos Taco, a taco shell–Doritos mashup that went on to sell 100 million units in its first 10 weeks.

“You can think that Doritos Locos Tacos is a novelty item, but based on how many we have sold and how much our consumers love them, they’re not novelty,” Friebe says.

The Doritos Locos Taco innovation sprung from a simple question: How can you make a taco more flavorful? Other menu items have come from a similar problem-solution approach. How do you make a taco more filling? The Gordita. More crave-able? The Chalupa. Even cheesier? The Quesalupa.

Liz Matthews, chief food and beverage innovation officer at Taco Bell, says it all comes down to a problem, a hunch, or a common request from consumers. In research groups, consumers often said they liked putting potato chips in their sandwiches. Others said they loved the flavor of Doritos. It took some time before the dots connected and the Doritos Locos Taco was born.

“The biggest thing for us is to always be listening. Once you do that, things start to fall into place,” Matthews says. “We’re always listening to the consumer and always exploring and trying new things.”

Even if an idea seems “way out there,” Matthews’ team would prefer to break down a wall than to take the easy route and kill the idea. For example, the Doritos Locos Taco—though seemingly simple—took 30 iterations, six production lines, and a lot of negative feedback from consumer test groups to perfect. A product like that had simply never been created before.

“We definitely don’t want to say no to things. The harsh reality of that is then you don’t have great innovation,” she says. “It’s very easy to come up with reasons why you shouldn’t do something. We’re really into the habit and pattern of just going for it and seeing what it could lead to.”

In the case of Doritos Locos Tacos, innovation spawned more innovation. During the prototyping phase, the test kitchen was covered in Doritos “dust,” so the team invented a cardboard taco holster to keep the space—and their fingers—clean. They used the holster temporarily during market testing, but consumers fell in love with it. The holster stayed, and now other menu items are served in it as well.

There’s no “I” in taco

The development process requires constant communication among the marketing, R&D, and operations teams, involving everyone from food scientists and chefs to microbiologists and managers, as well as conversations with consumers and employees. It’s all a part of the journey toward creating menu items that are fun and affordable.

“You obviously have to make sure it tastes like what they think it’s going to taste like,” Friebe says. “So we do a lot of work to make sure what we are promising is what we created.”

The Sensory Panel at Taco Bell’s Irvine, California, headquarters is one of the places this kind of testing happens. The classroom-like room is lined with single desks separated by dividers. It’s a place where employees give feedback on two products with small variations. They get a free lunch, as well as points for participating.

The test kitchen—hidden in a basement level of the modern, light-filled headquarters that is located in a pristine tree-lined business park—is simply a reproduction of a Taco Bell restaurant kitchen. A diner-style counter with stools allows for tasting and talking among the team.

The no-frills testing space is purposeful, because while flavor is important, so is speed. All products are tested on an authentic line to make sure they can be prepared in one minute or less. Much of the prototyping stage is not only deciding which ingredients taste best, but also the order in which the ingredients will be used as the product is constructed in the restaurants. There’s also the decision as to whether or not any utensils can be added to make the process smoother.

Once the development team feels confident in a product and the process, they’ll test it in a couple of stores before moving nationwide. The feedback they receive from restaurant managers is critical and often results in a few more iterations back in the test kitchen.

“Once crews and managers say, ‘This is good and we can make it fast,’ then we expand,” Matthews says. “We have 7,200 stores. What we don’t want to do is throw something out there and cause chaos, because that’s a lot of chaos.”

A huge part of the Doritos Locos Taco’s success, says Rob Poetsch, director of public affairs and engagement, was not what made it different, but what made it the same. Taco Bell restaurant employees know how to make tacos fast—and the fact that the shell was sprayed with Doritos flavoring didn’t affect their already-efficient processes.

The breakfast club

Not all product launches were as easy as the Doritos Locos Taco. Two and half years ago, Taco Bell launched a nationwide breakfast menu that became a huge success, but Matthews says there were six large breakfast tests that “didn’t go so well” before her team found the winning combination.

Consumers wanted the classic breakfast taste but with a Taco Bell twist, so the team created a menu focused heavily on spice. It failed. (It turns out the morning commute is too early for habanero.) Years later, the answer was eventually found in another product: the Crunchwrap.

Friebe says the Crunchwrap was born from a simple request: “I love Taco Bell, but can you make it more portable?” All of Taco Bell’s signature flavors are found inside a Crunchwrap, a soft hexagon-shaped shell that offers a no-mess bite on the go. It was a great jumping-off point for the last breakfast test. The team developed a version with eggs, bacon, cheese, hashbrowns, and a creamy jalapeño sauce with just the right amount of spice.

“You have all these great breakfast tastes delivered in a Taco Bell way,” Poetsch says. “Only Taco Bell could do this.”

The Breakfast Crunchwrap is now the top-selling item on the morning menu. After years of testing, learning, and listening, the breakfast program is profitable. And while there are other big players in the quick-service breakfast space, Matthews considers Taco Bell as one of the biggest players in the morning daypart.

“Ten years ago, people were like, ‘What? I’d never have Taco Bell for breakfast.’ Our breakfast is a part of their habit now,” she says.

There were some hiccups the day the breakfast platform launched. But Taco Bell was prepared; the innovation team isn’t the only company group listening to consumers. On the marketing floor at company headquarters, a casual meeting space called the Fishbowl is filled with busy screens. Using a service called Netbase, live streams of social activity fill the walls. What started as a way to manage potential brand crises now serves as a beat-by-beat monitoring of the brand’s pulse, as well as customer satisfaction.

“Things happen that you can’t really plan for,” Poetsch says. “We’re looking at everything from the operations of our restaurants to trends in food culture.”

Beyond the social streams and mentions, digital activity is monitored by geographic region. This is how the company was able to track the breakfast launch from the East Coast to the West and mitigate problems in real time, says Alec Boyle, Taco Bell’s public affairs and brand engagement specialist.

“Things that were a little bit problematic on the East Coast, we were able to fix by the time breakfast came around to the West Coast because we were able to get in touch with our restaurants,” Boyle says. “We were able to make those changes by listening to what was happening in our restaurants on one coast before it got to the next.”

Going back to the basics

Matthews is quick to point out that listening and innovating is about a lot more than just creating new and exciting products. Part of her team is dedicated to improving existing ingredients.

“We realize that consumers are expecting a lot from their food, and there are certain things they don’t want in their food,” Matthews says.

By mid-September, all artificial colors and flavors will be removed from Taco Bell’s ingredients, which affects 90 percent of the menu. And as of January 1, 2017, the company will only purchase cage-free eggs—a transition that was made in just one year. Next year marks another milestone: Taco Bell’s poultry will be free of crossover antibiotics.

Consumers may want these changes, but they definitely don’t want changes in taste. Though these were tough obstacles to tackle, Matthews says, they were investments in time and money that the company was willing to make. Her team is now looking at removing many of the preservatives from the menu.

“The biggest thing for us is that we’re not going to just do everything. We’re going to do things that make sense for our brand and who we are and what’s important to our customers,” she says. “You won’t see us jump on the bandwagon that everyone is jumping on.”

One of the bandwagons Taco Bell has jumped on is the healthy one. After hearing a common request for lighter dishes, there are now two options: Power Bowls and Fresco style. Power Bowls offer more than 20 grams of protein in less than 500 calories. Fresco is a substitution option that replaces the cheese and sour cream in tacos with pico de gallo. About 60 percent of Taco Bell’s orders are customized in some way, often to become vegetarian. In fact, the brand was the first fast-food restaurant to receive approval from the American Vegetarian Association.

Starting over again

Founder Glen Bell is credited with introducing the mainstream U.S. to tacos in the 1960s. He created the “taco rail,” a kitchen innovation that allows crispy tortilla shells to stand at attention so they can be filled efficiently.

“At his first restaurants, he was teaching people to turn their heads, because automatically people would pick it up and eat it from the top,” Matthews says. “So we are blessed with amazing innovation DNA from Glen Bell.”

And that’s a good thing. As Taco Bell expands internationally—it announced in late 2015 that it would quadruple its international presence to roughly 1,000 units by 2020—the teaching process must begin again. Across the hallway from the traditional test kitchen is a reproduction of the quick-service chain’s colorful open-concept kitchen used in international locations. The open concept allows consumers who might not be familiar with Mexican cuisine to “eat with their eyes.”

“Once they see the ingredients, they’re like, oh, OK, rice and beans—I get it,” Poetsch says. “Showing becomes very important to consumers.”

Each international location has a bit of local flair. It’s Taco Bell but with a twist. Think Kimchi Quesadillas in Korea, Chicken Tikka Masala Burritos in India, and a Shrimp and Avocado Burrito in Japan. The latest Tokyo location had an hours-long line on opening day.

The open concept has been so successful that, once again, innovation spawned innovation. The new layout was brought stateside in the form of Taco Bell Cantina, a trendy new prototype that opened in Chicago and San Francisco, serving alcohol as well as some new menu items like Mini Quesadilla Nachos.

While around 70 percent of Taco Bell’s business is drive thru, Matthews and Friebe say they’re imagining new “open-plating” products that consumers can enjoy. But the potential change doesn’t phase them.

“If you follow what we are about, we’re a brand of firsts,” Friebe says. “We’ll be able to continue what the brand is about and the creativity we bring to the food in other parts of the world.”

Matthews agrees: “This is what we do all day long—how to make things fast; how to make things delicious.”

Fast Food, Menu Innovations, Story, Taco Bell