GASTRO-NOMICS

How Taco Bell Secretly Built a Huge Vegan Cult Following

In just a few short years, the chain behind the Beefy 5-Layer Burrito has managed to become an obsession of vegans and vegetarians

Photo Illustration: Save As/Medium; Source: Taco Bell

Earlier this month, like Simba returning from exile, Taco Bell’s potatoes were officially restored to the company’s menu board — Spicy Potato Soft Taco and all. This wasn’t a small-fry development guided by a simple seasonal shift or some limited-time promotion; it was the result of a several-month fusillade by the brand’s starch and vegetarian loyalists, who had been furious at the company for removing potatoes last summer.

Ever since its controversial “menu simplification,” Taco Bell quite literally couldn’t post on social media without encountering some grief about bygone potatoes. (One fairly representative comment on an Instagram post featuring a happy couple reenacting “Lady and the Tramp” with a taco: “Y’all prob took their relationship off the menu too.”)

“I feel like I’ve almost heard from everybody in the country on the potato bites,” Liz Matthews, global chief food innovation officer at Taco Bell, told CNN.

But what Taco Bell might euphemize as customers’ “passion’’ for both potatoes and the brand actually speaks to one of the sleeper attributes of the Live Más lifestyle: its striking and perhaps unlikely appeal to vegetarians and vegans. Indeed, Taco Bell’s shift from a lettuce-linked E. coli outbreak in 2006 to modern-day vegetarian godsend has been so imperceptible that Beefy 5-Layer Burrito traditionalists may not have even noticed.

In some ways, it started back in 2015, when Taco Bell became the first national chain to offer menu items certified by the American Vegetarian Association. “We sell more than 350 million vegetarian menu items each year,” then-CEO Brian Niccol said at the time, “but until now [we] haven’t been vocal about it.” In 2019, a year after it removed artificial colors and flavors from its core menu, the company launched a stand-alone vegetarian menu section, earning it more attention in lifestyle circles. Nowadays, even PETA touts the bounty of vegetarian and vegan options at Taco Bell.

Part of what separates Taco Bell from its fast-food brethren is that its vegetarian configurations have long been part of its foundation, practically hiding in plain sight for years. “Our bean burrito is our second most sold item on our menu — so even people who are not vegetarians are eating vegetarian at Taco Bell,” one company spokesperson explained in 2016.

Meanwhile, the Mexican Pizza, another item to meet with the chopping block last year, served as a favorite among vegetarians (and achieved cult status among South Asians with restrictive diets) because of the ease with which you could substitute beans for beef when ordering. “[U]nlike other places where the vegetarian option means sucking the fun out of food, Taco Bell is still Taco Bell when you swap out the meat for beans,” Rima Parikh wrote in an ode to Mexican Pizza for The Takeout. “It is still going to destroy your organs, and it is still delicious.” (A petition to save the Mexican Pizza last year garnered 160,000 signatures.)

With the vegetarian market growing, Taco Bell’s veggie strategy, like countless other chains, is growing even more overt than serving up bean burritos and easy substitutions for animal proteins. As recently as 2018, 5% of American adults considered themselves to be vegetarian, according to a Gallup poll, while the number of Americans embracing plant-based diets has grown by more than 300% in the past 15 years. More significant is the way that traditional carnivores, especially those in younger age groups, are shifting their consumption habits toward a plant-heavy flexitarianism. A recent study conducted by food service giant Aramark found that at least 79% of Gen Z diners aim to eat meatless meals once or twice a week.

To cater to this changing landscape, Taco Bell is allowing itself to be defined in ways that would seem unthinkable a decade ago, back when members of the U.S. Senate were still decrying vegetarian diets as “un-American.” Today, in-store ordering kiosks at Taco Bell have a feature called “Veggie Mode,” which reveals most of the menu with vegetarian customizations already slotted in. And later this year, Taco Bell will unveil an entirely new plant protein in a partnership with Beyond Meat, the company’s most mainstream vegetarian salvo yet, joining a handful of chains to incorporate buzzier new meatless alternatives to their offerings.

Given Taco Bell’s historic reputation as a lowbrow stoner favorite, this evolution stands out among restaurant chains that have always tried to be everything to everyone. With a fanatical customer base that already flaunts Taco Bell tattoos and even gets married in Taco Bell outposts, managing to fold the growing generation of vegetarians and vegans into their ranks is no small potatoes.

Journalist. Author of Drive-Thru Dreams. The Atlantic alum. Work in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Texas Monthly, and elsewhere.

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