Taco Bell has seen the future of fast food, and it might not be what folks eat - but what they drink.
Today, the Mexican fast-food giant will announce the largest-ever expansion of its beverage menu - with six new drinks rolling out at once, including three carbonated and three new non-carbonated beverages.
More typically, fast-food chains will introduce one, two or maybe three new drinks at a time - but rarely six. The biggest of the bunch is expected to be a fruit-infused Mountain Dew Sangrita Blast, that will be available only at Taco Bell. Other new offerings: Manzanita Sol (an apple-flavored, carbonated drink); Diet Mountain Dew Baja Blast; SoBe Lifewater Yumberry Pomegranate; Brisk Mango iced tea and Brisk Half and Half (half tea, half lemonade.)
The national rollout is just getting underway.
"We asked ourselves: Why can't we make our beverages as crave-able as our food?" says Chris Brandt, chief marketing officer. "That's been our mission for the past 18 months."
For the fast-food giants, drinks matter. About 56% of fast-food purchases involved a beverage last year, says NPD Group/CREST. "Beverages are a significant portion of profits," says Christopher Muller, who teaches at Boston University's School of Hospitality Administration. "You're basically serving water with ice." Drinks can account for 30% to 40% of sales - and can quickly boost profits 10% to 15%, he says.
The beverage move by Taco Bell comes less than two years after it nearly turned the fast-food business upside down with its wildly successful Doritos Locos Tacos - which puts tacos inside Doritos-flavored taco shells. The product line is widely considered one of the most successful in the brand's history and one of fast food's most innovative in years.
But Taco Bell has been somewhat on the sidelines in recent years while other fast-food chains - particularly McDonald's and Starbucks - have vastly expanded their beverage lines, mostly hoping to lure Millennials for late-day and late-night snacking. McDonald's has rolled out various smoothies and frappés even as Starbucks has rolled out a unique line of Refreshers. Also, the new Coca-Cola Freestyle drink machine - which can mix and match 127 different drinks - is catching on as it shows up at some retailers that sell Coke products
While Taco Bell - which sells Pepsi products - has expanded its line of Freezes, the creative growth of its beverage menu arguably hasn't kept up with the growth of its foods over the past few years.
Now, with an eye on Millennials, who demand more creative - and healthy - carbonated and non-carbonated drinks, Taco Bell is trying to move the beverage needle. But will folks choose a fast food because of the drinks?
"I do," says Boston University's Muller. And when it's a tossup between one fast-food outlet and another, the beverages can be the deciding factor, he says.
The beverage move also is about attracting customers into stores during off-peak hours - like late afternoon or late night. At least, that's what it did when Taco Bell tested the drinks at some locations last year, says Brandt.
The way Muller figures it, bolstering the beverage menu certainly can't hurt. "We're going from the year of the carbs, to the year of the beverages."