Taco Bell isn't afraid of experimentation—and this year was no different. The Mexican-themed fast-food chain embraced change in 2023 by launching (and relaunching) new menu items, responding to customers' desires, and leveraging new marketing moves, among other initiatives.
This year was also proof that Taco Bell is coming to eat competitors' lunch. With forays into plant-based food items and even chicken nuggets, the popular taco chain shows no sign of slowing down.
Business is booming. Company leaders said in November that sales are "on a roll" as customers embrace value deals, like the limited edition $5 Cravings Box meal deal. Taco Bell has also embarked on a couple of firsts this year, like a new plant-based sauce and more breakfast items.
Here are nine big changes Taco Bell ushered in this year.
Hasta la vista, Quesarito
Much to the chagrin of die-hard fans, the taco chain said goodbye to the Quesarito in April. The popular beef-and-bean burrito came wrapped in a nacho-cheese filled quesadilla with chipotle sauce and sour cream. The cheesy burrito-quesadilla hybrid has been a mainstay on permanent menus since 2014, an admirable nine-year run, so fans were understandably upset at the news.
Perhaps to fill the hole in fans' hearts, however, Taco Bell launched a new over-the-top burrito in in October after a successful test run. The Steak and Bacon Grilled Cheese Burrito is a meat lovers' dream: stuffed with marinated grilled steak, potatoes, then topped with chipotle sauce, nacho cheese, reduced-fat sour cream, and three-cheese blend. It's all wrapped up inside a flour tortilla, with more three-cheese blend and bacon grilled on top.
First fully vegan item launched
Taco Bell came out swinging in June with the launch of its first fully plant-based menu item ever: the Vegan Crunchwrap. The signature six-sided wrap is stuffed with Taco Bell's proprietary seasoned vegan "beef" and topped with two new sauces—a vegan blanco sauce, similar to sour cream, and warm vegan nacho sauce—both of which have been in development for a while. After years of testing, the Vegan Crunchwrap debuted in American cities with "notable vegan populations," including Los Angeles and New York City.
Of course, in true Taco Bell fashion, it didn't last forever—the meatless wrap was a limited edition release. However, Taco Bell noted in a statement upon its debut that the chain is committed to vegan and vegetarian diners, so ventures into more plant-based items would be no surprise. In fact, the chain hit another major milestone in October when it launched a new vegan nacho sauce nationwide, marking the widest release for a vegan item.
Tech drives more sales
In 2023, Taco Bell's digital sales increased a whopping 45% in the third quarter compared to 2022, as the chain continued to expand its online capabilities. A majority of restaurants are installing self-serve kiosks and digital ordering screens for customers to click and order at their own discretion, and, in late 2022, Taco Bell partnered with DoorDash to provide delivery through the taco chain's mobile app.
Taco Bell has been ramping up its app in many ways, thanks to exclusive offers, rewards, and even games. Earlier this year, Taco Bell invited fans to visit the app and cast a vote to choose a discontinued item to return: Beefy Crunch Burrito or the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos. (The burrito won, by the way.)
Then, in July, Taco Bell added a game to the app, Coin Drop, a throwback to the early 2000s when customers would drop a coin into an in-store container. A few months later, the in-app game returned again, with winners snagging a free Build Your Own Cravings Box or Cinnamon Twists, a Crunchy Taco, or a Bean Burrito.
The chain also brought back the popular Taco Lovers Pass in October, a subscription service that debuted in 2022, which is only available through the Taco Bell app. Rewards members could purchase a 30-day subscription for $10 and get a free taco each day.
More international locations
Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, opened a new restaurant roughly every two hours in 2021, setting new company and restaurant industry records, according to Forbes. That momentum continued into 2023, as Taco Bell actively expanded its store count.
Currently, that number hovers around 8,200, but company executives hinted in August that Taco Bell aims to become as big as McDonald's, to the tune of operating 10,000 restaurants in the coming years. This massive expansion is part of an overall growth strategy domestically and abroad. (To date, there are about 1,000 international Taco Bell locations, according to Statista.) Canada is a new target for Taco Bell domination: in 2023, the largest Taco Bell franchisee in Canada, Redberry Restaurants, announced plans to open 200 new locations in the country, which would more than double the existing Canadian Taco Bell location count.
Focus on sustainability
Taco Bell aims to be 100% sustainable one day, an ambitious plan to be sure. First stop: headquarters. This year, Taco Bell CEO Mark King said the company's headquarters is already working on reducing waste by swapping out plastic silverware and cups, for example, and ushering in more eco-friendly practices.
King also said the quick-service restaurant is focusing on expanding its recycling program with TerraCycle. To date, more than 135,000 sauce packets have been properly recycled through the program, an effort that will continue to grow and become more widely available for customers in-store. King noted in an interview with RetailBrew that the chain is looking to build restaurants that are more recycle-friendly, like swapping out one big waste bin with one that has divided compartments for recycling, compost, and waste.
The taco chain was once a no-brainer destination for cheap eats, but $1 tacos are getting harder to find in some locations, due to inflation pricing that's hitting fast-food chains all over. Like many competitors this year, Taco Bell hiked menu prices another 10%, following similar price bumps in 2021 and 2022.
Unfortunately, taco fans are taking note of the increased prices and are even changing their habits. One Redditor posted about the prices in June, "As a hardcore TB fan I may have to call it quits. Just can't warrant paying these prices anymore…my regular order has jumped $6 in the past year in my area." Commenters agreed, saying they are visiting Taco Bell less due to the upped prices.
Given the increased price-points, fans were understandably excited to see the $5 Cravings Box meal deal reappear on menus over the summer, which included a Chalupa Supreme, a Beefy 5-Layer Burrito, a Crunchy Taco, Cinnamon Twists, and a medium fountain drink.
New interest in breakfast items
After a successful 2022 campaign run with comedian Pete Davidson as its frontman, Taco Bell again partnered with Davidson to launch a new breakfast item in April, the California Breakfast Crunchwrap, which was available for a limited time at participating U.S. locations. This limited release was part of a larger strategy to refresh its breakfast menu, competing with other fast-food chains better known for their morning options, like McDonald's and Wendy's.
In October, the taco chain launched new Toasted Breakfast Tacos nationwide, featuring fluffy eggs, melted cheese, and a choice of bacon, sausage, or potatoes inside a grilled tortilla. The chain ran a mobile-app promo for rewards members who could snag free orders of the new breakfast taco on certain dates in October. Breakfast? Check. App promo? Check.
Throwback features and collaborations
This summer, Taco Bell brought back its epic Volcano Menu, including the Volcano Burrito and Volcano Taco with optional Lava Sauce on the side. Die-hard fans were stoked to try out the red-hot items, which last graced the menu from 2008 to 2013. "The return of the Volcano Menu is the best news of the decade," one fan tweeted in March.
Ostensibly to tap into the nostalgic vibes of that time, Taco Bell partnered with reality TV star Paris Hilton for the menu release. The return of the Volcano Menu welcomed a Hilton Hot Line for fans to call and listen to pre-recorded messages featuring the celebrity. The Volcano Menu was available on the Taco Bell mobile app and DoorDash through July 5. This promo was peak Taco Bell: online exclusive deals plus celebrity endorsements—what's not to love?
Incoming: More pizza and nuggets
While Taco Bell is arguably the most-loved Mexican chain in the country, the quick-service spot is not afraid to launch food items that have almost nothing to do with Mexican cuisine. Exhibit A: Taco Bell debuted its "premium" Crispy Chicken Nuggets at select restaurants in Minneapolis in October, a shot fired at rival nugget-slinging chains like McDonald's and Chick-fil-A.
Exhibit B: the Mexican Pizza, which was actually on the menu for 35 years before it was yanked off in 2020. After a short time missing from menus, the fan-favorite pizza returned in September 2022, and this year, Taco Bell debuted a new take on its classic nationwide: the Cheesy Jalapeño Mexican Pizza. Seasoned beef, refried beans, pizza sauce, three-cheese blend, nacho cheese sauce and tomatoes are then sandwiched between two pizza shells and topped with jalapeños. Proof that Taco Bell continues to think outside the shell.