I like to think of American fast food chains as a bunch of dysfunctional family members. McDonald’s is the golden boy, the kid who is good at everything and who does not shut up. Burger King is the jealous younger brother. KFC may be the cousin who still wears cargo shorts. And then there’s Taco Bell: the problem kid of fast food.
The fluorescent nacho cheese supplier is just plain weird. I’m not just talking about those tacos with Doritos for the seashells. This is a brand that reportedly spent $ 500 million on an advertising campaign featuring Gidget, a Chihuahua speaking with the slogan “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” A very real slogan on the Taco Bell webpage for its fountain drinks reads: “Taco Bell Cups, Matryoshka Dolls, and the Multiplicity of Human Existence”. (It only gets stranger from there.)
Alas, Taco Bell is starting over. This month, the brand announced the “Taco Lover’s Pass,” which gets you exactly one taco every day for 30 days with a $ 5-10 membership, depending on the store. Right now, Taco Bell is testing the service at 17 locations in Tucson, Arizona, and there are many caveats: the only way to become a Certified Taco Lover is to purchase the pass through the Taco app. Bell; no, sorry, the Chalupa Supreme is not part of the case. A company spokesperson told me that “there is no guarantee” that the subscription service will be available nationwide, “but when it comes to Taco Bell innovation, we don’t. let’s never say never “.
While “Netflix for Tacos” absolutely doesn’t have to be a phrase we’ll all have to endure in the future, I reluctantly admit that it sounds like a good deal. Some of the chain’s qualifying tacos sell for $ 1.99, so if you buy the $ 5 pass and enter three days out of 30, you may more than break even. The most ardent Taco Bell fans are crazy about subscription tacos. “I think so far this might be one of the few perks I’ve had to living in AZ lol,” read a comment on r / livingmas, the Reddit forum for discussing Taco Bell. But even a good deal has its drawbacks. “It’s brilliant marketing. No one with this subscription could live for 30 days ”, joked comedian Larry the Cable Guy on Twitter. (Hey, when he’s right, he’s right.)
For once what Taco Bell is doing here might not be this weird. The brand is far from the first restaurant to make a foray into the subscription economy full of plus signs slapped on names. Last year, the Panera fast-casual chain launched “MyPanera +,” which gives you unlimited coffee and tea for $ 9 a month. The faithful of Panera have gone mad about it: in a few months, some 750,000 people have registered. (A Panera spokesperson told me that subscriptions have continued to increase this year, but won’t give the numbers.) Burger King, Dunkin ‘, Pret a Manger, and BJ’s have all tried the subscriptions.
Before Taco Bell came along, all of these subscriptions were focused on coffee (or in BJ’s case, beer). But some restaurants in white tablecloths have also embarked on the game of subscriptions. When the pandemic banned sit-down meals last year and sent much of the industry’s workforce to jobless lists, places like Republic, Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Gado Gado, in Portland, Oregon, have turned to memberships as an easy way for cash-flush regulars to help shore up their finances.
A lot of people seem to genuinely like the idea. A poll last September found that a majority of New York residents would consider purchasing a restaurant membership, at least in the context of the pandemic, to support their favorite places. But a Taco Bell subscription begs the question: how far are we going with this? All is a subscription now. You can, of course, subscribe to Netflix and Amazon, as well as this magazine. But you can also subscribe to phone cases and puzzles and furniture and seeds and earrings and sex toys. Convenience is nice, but the trend is also in many ways the product of thin bank accounts and too little free time. As my colleague Amanda Mull wrote of the subscription era, “generational insecurity is not an exciting way of life”.
The Taco Bell spokesperson did not answer the question as to why the chain is trying this. Lidija Polutnik, an economist at Babson College who has researched increasing subscriptions, told me that the company may have two main motivations behind its pivot to subscriptions. For one thing, Americans have lots and lots of fast food choices, so a subscription could be a perfect way for the brand to get customers to the door, where they’ll want to wash their taco down with a drink and maybe nachos. . “I find it hard to think that someone would come in 30 days a month and only get a taco,” Polutnik told me. And more fundamentally, Polutnik said, these cheap subscriptions allow Taco Bell to track a lot of valuable data on what exactly its customers want, when, and how often.
Restaurant subscriptions aren’t such a safe bet that every restaurant you love (or hate) is destined to have one soon. Burger King and Dunkin ‘both ended their coffee subscriptions shortly after launch. But the explosion of subscription services is a sign of greater fate. With subscription tacos, Taco Bell is going from a bizarre restaurant chain to a bizarre tech company. The same is true of its competitors and, indeed, all of corporate America. Taco Bell copies the Netflix playbook because the way to survive in business is to copy the trends and practices of Silicon Valley. Of course, this can make our life easier. (Lord knows the difficulty of buying tacos without a subscription.) But the end point of technology supporting all facets of consumers’ lives is that the same nuisances of automatic renewals, buggy apps, data tracking and so many other problems are no longer just problems of the tech industry. They are all problems. Someone please let me know when we get Chipotle +.