published Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Taco Bell goes gourmet with swanky spread created by chef Lorena Garcia

Taco Bell
Taco Bell

Fast facts:

• Number of Chattanooga-area Taco Bells: 31

• New menu name: Cantina Bell

• Largest local franchisee: Tacala, which operates 24 Chattanooga-area Taco Bells and is the largest franchisee nationwide

• Size of advertising campaign: $20 million nationwide

Source: Tacala, Associated Press

New menu items:

• Cilantro rice -- cooked in a cilantro seasoning that features onion, garlic, cilantro and parsley

• Citrus and herb-marinated chicken -- boneless, skinless chicken breast marinade that features garlic, onion, lemon, cilantro and tomatillo

• New guacamole -- made with Hass avocados and blended with tomato, jalapeno, onion, cilantro and lemon juice

• Fire-roasted corn salsa -- Super sweet yellow corn and fresh red and green bell peppers, fire-roasted

• Creamy cilantro dressing -- cilantro blended with oil, lemon juice, vinegar and garlic

• Pico de Gallo -- Diced tomatoes and onions blended with chopped cilantro and a tangy dressing made with lemon juice and vinegar

Source: Taco Bell

Taco Bell's belly-filling fare is getting a celebrity makeover and a brand-new menu.

The popular restaurant known for its inexpensive take on Mexican food is rolling out a swankier spread created by celebrity chef Lorena Garcia for all 5,600 restaurants, according to the Associated Press.

Customer favorites like soft tacos and chalupas aren't going anywhere, but will be bolstered by upscale offerings like herb-marinated chicken and cilantro rice.

"We are in the process of rolling it out in Chattanooga," said Majorie Pearlman, vice president of marketing for franchisee Tacala, which owns 24 Chattanooga-area Taco Bells and is the largest nationwide with 224 locations nationwide.

All-in, the new menu introduces eight new ingredients including whole black beans, cilantro rice, all white meat chicken in a citrus and herb marinade, fresh guacamole, fire-roasted corn salsa, creamy cilantro dressing, romaine lettuce and pico de gallo.

The new "Cantina Bell" menu represents a shot across the bow for existing companies in the upscale Mexican food market like Qdoba Mexican Grill, which have long attracted the high-end crowd.

Taco Bell's new Cantina Bowl and Cantina Burrito, both priced around $5, evolved from 26 recipes that Garcia has been working on since 2010.

Naturally, some are skeptical that Taco Bell can make the cut, but the chain is already on top of that issue, Pearlman said.

"We're basically offering a money-back guarantee, kind of putting our money where your mouth is," she said. "We want to make sure people give Taco Bell the credibility to do this type of upscale product."

The new menu items will cost slightly more, but testing in Louisville, Ky., and Fresno, Calif., resulted in a bigger lunch and dinner crowd and an uptick in women customers, according to the Associated Press.

Chattanooga-area fans will see advertising spending increase by as much as a third as part of Taco Bell's $20 million plan to market the dramatic change.

"Chattanooga is always receptive to local products, we find, so we expect Cantina Bell to be a home run in this market," Pearlman said. "It's going to be still priced a little higher than normal menu items, but still will be priced less than competitors for similar quality item."

The Taco Bell franchisee is already on a roll this year after successfully rolling out Doritos Locos Tacos, of which Taco Bell sold 100 million in the 10 weeks, according to the AP.

"Last year was tough because the Ringgold store was hit by the tornado, and a couple other stores were damaged, so we're really excited about the year we're having so far," she said.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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