Meet the Taco Bell Dairy Scientist Spurring Dairy Demand

( Courtesy - Taco Bell )

Drive through Taco Bell and have your pick on the menu. Chances are, you'll order an item coated or with a side of cheese. It’s not an accident, but a well-developed plan.

“Really, my job here is to make sure dairy has a presence and to make sure it’s on the menu,” says Mike Ciresi, a Dairy Management Incorporated (DMI) senior dairy scientist who works at Taco Bell’s headquarters in Irvine, California.

It's all thanks to dairy scientists like Ciresi who has a pretty cool job. You'll find him at Taco Bell headquarters in California. He’s cooking, creating and developing new, cheesy, gooey items in its test kitchen.

AgDay national reporter, Betsy Jibben, asks, “What are you cooking up today?”

“Today, it’s a pretty standard day in the kitchen,” says Ciresi. “We are working on developing some additional products here for some menu items to be potentially launched later this year and early in 2021.”

Ciresi can't quite reveal what he's developing but you've probably tasted his work.

He's the creator behind the Grilled Cheese Burrito and The Pineapple Whip Freeze. He co-managed both projects which launched this year.


Jibben asks, “Do you play around in the kitchen and develop something or how do these items come about exactly?”

“Ideas here come from anywhere and everywhere,” says Ciresi. “We have a lot of ideation sessions actually in this room with a team. We pick a topic and brainstorm. We dream and develop potential new ideas."

The brainstorming began years ago. Dairy Management Incorporated recognized production was increasing on farms and approached food CEOs to talk about how to modernize and make menus more relevant with, of course, more dairy.

“The average amount of cheese on a taco five or six years ago was .25 ounces,” says Paul Ziemnisky, executive vice president of global innovation partnerships with Dairy Management Incorporated. “We really wanted to understand how to use dairy as a growth platform.”

The transformation and partnership with Taco Bell started back in 2012, when the company had no dairy beverages on its menu and less cheese-focused products.

“If you were to talk to Taco Bell before we started the partnership, they viewed dairy as a garnish,” says Ziemnisky. “Cheese was just like lettuce and tomatoes.”

Domestic dairy demand is a major part of the equation when it comes to the health of the industry.

Dairy Management Incorporated, a dairy checkoff program, has teamed up with well-known fast-food chains to make sure dairy is a big part of their menus.

 DMI has employed dairy scientists aren’t just working at Taco Bell. They are placed with famous fast-food chains such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza and KFC.

DMI has worked with McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza since 2009. They’ve worked with Taco Bell since 2012 and Pizza Hut since 2014.

Since that program started, the group says U.S. dairy sales grew by 2.2 billion milk equivalent pounds. That’s averaged 3% growth since 2009 since some of the partnerships started back then with McDonald’s and Domino’s. For example, butter at McDonald's delivered 500 million milk equivalent pounds, just in the first year.

“The reason [McDonald’s] chose butter [is because] they asked who could do things fast and they wanted to do something to prove McDonald’s natural credentials,” says Ziemnisky. “The suppliers raised their hands, we raised our hands and felt we could commercialize butter within six months.”

Ziemnisky days DMI and its scientists also helped with the McCafe revitalization and launch. He says majority of society can’t afford $5 coffee during a daily basis. The chain wanted to create a solution and DMI wanted to help create more dairy demand.  

“Our scientists worked with the coffee folks: the coffee suppliers, coffee equipment suppliers, milk and cream suppliers and a marketing team,” says Ziemnisky. “Our scientists worked with suppliers to install test equipment.”

The group also took action when COVID-19 initially impacted the United States to make dairy more relevant to the consumer and move dairy through the system, especially with pizza.

“Kids didn’t even have their graduation,” says Ziemnisky. “They shut down schools. We worked with Pizza Hut to partner with Jimmy Fallon to introduce a promotion where 500,000 graduates got free pizza on behalf of Pizza Hut and dairy farmers.”

One of the group's dairy scientists worked on Taco Bell's Quesalupa, which had five times the cheese of a normal taco. That alone delivered 60 million milk equivalent pounds.   
“We have a lot of exciting products in the future that I can’t yet talk about,” says Ciresi. “Hopefully, they perform well and they reach the menu here shortly.”

That's the plan: to create fresh, new items next time you go by the drive thru, built with dairy.

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