Earlier this year I visited Taco Bell. Not the one in my hometown, where they should build a shrine of appreciation to my teenage son who thinks the Crunchwrap Supreme is a ‘light snack’, but the headquarters near Los Angeles.
I didn’t go because I had a burning desire to travel, or to see Los Angeles, or potentially eat copious amounts of Taco Bell food (although that last part was a great incentive). I did it because I had heard a lot about the partnerships Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) has made with prominent retail brands, and I wanted a first-person experience of how these relationships work.
I also went because I know checkoff programs across livestock and crop markets are under constant scrutiny to prove their value, and I wanted to give the folks at DMI a chance to demonstrate theirs. It’s hard for producers to justify the 15-cent per cwt deduction from their milk check when times are tough, like it’s been for the past few years. That investment in a national checkoff program doesn’t seem like much, but it can be significant when every penny is pinched to make ends meet. Producers find it difficult to look past short-term pain to see long-term reward.
Part of that long-term reward is happening at Taco Bell. Part of the family of YUM! brands that includes other restaurant chains like KFC and Pizza Hut, Taco Bell is a huge brand. More than 350 franchise organizations operate more than 7,000 restaurants that serve more than 40 million customers each week, just in the U.S. Another 500 restaurants are in nearly 30 countries worldwide.
DMI began a partnership with Taco Bell back in late 2012. Since then Taco Bell has grown the total volume of dairy products through its restaurants by more than 4% annually, and has reached double digit growth in several of those years. More than 95% of the products on the Taco Bell menu contain dairy products.
To give you an idea of what kind of an impact a company like Taco Bell can have on dairy sales, the Quesalupa was launched over a five-week promotional period. More than 60 million pounds of milk equivalents were sold over that time period, mostly in the form of cheese and sour cream.
During my visit to Taco Bell headquarters I had the opportunity to meet with two of the people directly responsible for bringing new products like the Quesalupa to life. Kimber Lew and Mike Ciresi are two dairy food scientists, employed by DMI, who work onsite at Taco Bell to support product development.
Innovation at Taco Bell follows a stringent path. New product ideas are first developed in test kitchens by a team of product developers. If the chefs can make it the product goes before a series of taste panels where people judge the product on taste, smell, mouth feel and other characteristics. Even if a product passes those tests, it has to be able to be made in regular restaurant kitchens. Several ‘back of store’ kitchens are set up within the headquarters to make sure workers can make the product effectively and in a timely manner.
If a new product passes through all of those tests, and supply arrangements and any equipment adjustments can be made, it enters regional test markets to determine how well it will perform with consumers.
As you can imagine, many more product ideas are generated than what actually make it into restaurants. And of those new products, most contain dairy.
“If it doesn’t have cheese on it, it’s not worth making,” says Ciresi. “Consumers love the taste of cheese so we try to integrate it into everything we create.”
The creation process that takes a new product from idea to something that consumers can buy takes a considerable amount of time and patience. But the effort is worth it when a new product does well in the marketplace.
“It’s really a labor of love,” says Lew. “It’s so gratifying to see an item on the menu that we had a hand in developing.”
For Taco Bell employees, the relationship with DMI has been key to making product innovation happen.
“We wouldn’t have such dairy-focused product innovation had it not been for the work that DMI has done,” says Nola Krieg, product development manager, food innovation at Taco Bell. “We really appreciate the partnership with DMI and the ability to have food scientists on our campus to help drive new product development.”
Through their association with DMI, Lew and Ciresi have an appreciation of how their work impacts dairy producers. DMI representatives regularly bring in dairy producers to tour the facility and talk with product developers and nutritionists. Likewise, Lew and Ciresi get to visit dairy farms to talk to producers first-hand and learn more about what it takes to produce the milk that goes into the dairy products they use.
“Going out to farms, you appreciate the work that is done on dairy farms to produce milk,” Ciresi says. “And getting to talk to producers helps us realize the importance of the work we’re doing to provide a market for that milk.”
Relationships like the one DMI has with Taco Bell happens with other large retail brands, too, including Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Domino’s and others. By working with these retail partners, DMI is able to increase the use of dairy products by these companies and impact sales of those products to millions of consumers. This approach has proven to be more effective than spending millions on an ad campaign to try and influence each of those consumers individually.
It’s one of the smart ways that DMI is proving their worth as a steward of the funds dairy producers contribute each day. So go to a Taco Bell, order up a Quesadilla and appreciate the work DMI representatives put into making it happen.