U.S. Taco Closes: Taco Bell Shutters Experimental Upscale Eatery in Huntington Beach

Nancy Luna
Tribune Content Agency, LLC
(c)2015 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
http://www.ocregister.com/articles/taco-683078-bell-restaurant.html

Taco Bell has closed U.S. Taco Co., an experimental fast-casual restaurant that failed to generate the kind of foot traffic needed to sustain the year-old Huntington Beach taco eatery.

The upscale “American taco” concept was the chain’s attempt to win the taste buds of sophisticated fast-casual eaters. But the Irvine-based chain cited “lower than anticipated foot traffic” and “hurdles securing alcohol permits” as challenges contributing to its decision to close U.S. Taco.

The Day of the Dead-themed eatery, at 150 5th St., closed Thursday.

Taco Bell said the closure allows the company to focus on Taco Bell Cantina, the company’s new urban concept that caters to its next generation of customers — millennials. The first cantina restaurant, which will offer an enhanced Taco Bell menu along with beer, wine and alcohol-infused slushie beverages, opens Tuesday in Chicago.

The next cantina will open later this month in San Francisco. Taco Bell said they are incorporating successful features from U.S. Taco — its open kitchen layout and edgy design — into new concepts like cantina. And, despite its closure, future U.S. Taco restaurants may open, the chain said.

“U.S. Taco Co. remains a fantastic concept, and was very successful as a place to experiment and learn,” Taco Bell Chief Executive Brian Niccol said.

Last year, Taco Bell unveiled U.S. Taco., a slick counter-service eatery attempting to appeal to non-Taco Bell eaters with disposable income. Jumping into the fast-growing $34 billion fast-casual space, the experimental restaurant featured a menu of American-inspired tacos, milkshakes and seasoned fries. Each taco was a twist on a classic regional dish — from an East Coast lobster roll to Texas-style brisket.

But from its inception, U.S. Taco ran into one major hitch.

The original “taproom” business model included a menu of craft beer and wine. But the eatery, located in the city’s bar heavy downtown, was unable to secure an alcohol license when it opened. The restaurant was finally able to secure a permit this summer.

Restaurant industry analyst Darren Tristano said brands “moving upscale” face challenges, including higher operating costs and higher price points.

Adding alcohol to your menu also is tough: “Adult beverage is not in (Taco Bell’s) DNA so it can be a difficult transition,” said Tristano of Chicago-based Technomic.

Tristano, who had visited U.S. Taco during visits to California, said legacy brands like Taco Bell should be true to their brand. In the case of Taco Bell, that’s “convenient, consistent, high value and indulgent crave able food.”

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