I’m still not exactly sure what I’m looking at, to be perfectly honest. I see chalkboards, Edison bulbs, nouveau Victorian paneling, distressed timber, Florentine floor patterning, communal tables, bright red cordage, midcentury lounge chairs, candy-color wall art, sconces of every kind, and a very strange Splatterhouse smear of what I’m told is rich orange—rather than blood red—paint.
However you choose to describe the aesthetic, Taco Bell is testing how well it works in four new experimental stores in Orange County, California, this summer. And if they’re successful—success being defined simply as fans being as excited about the restaurant itself as they are the food—the designs could be coming to a Taco Bell near you soon.
"Today, I think the [fast food] industry is beginning to see equal importance put toward the whole experience as we have seen for efficiency and quality for quite some time," says Deborah Brand, Taco Bell's VP of development and design. The new spaces are clearly designed for both communal eating and lounging out—with Wi-Fi and sometimes even fireplaces. It’s a play that may be the antithesis of Chipotle’s sharped-edged steel tables and hard plywood seats, though I’m not sure exactly how comfortable I’d be eating a dripping seven-layer burrito while partially reclined in a white Barcelona chair.
"Our goal with these test concepts is to create a more welcoming environment that’s reflective of the community and mindset of our consumers," says Brand. Four more of these stores will arrive before year’s end. And after that, the designs could be cycled into new stores and remodels across the country.
Taco Bell has been on an expansion rampage, fueled by the popularity of its cheap, meme-designed menu items. The company plans to open 2,000 new U.S. locations by 2022. Many of these stores will be tiny, cost-efficient buildings, but that hasn’t stopped the company from experimenting with a shipping container location in Austin and a graffiti-and-plywood urban restaurant—with booze on the menu—in Chicago.
Taco Bell’s four new locations represent four stylistic directions the company may take in the future: There's Modern Explorer (where natural wood meets gray paint), California Sol (with fireplaces and outdoor seating), Heritage (what feels like 30% of a Roman & Williams knockoff), and Urban Edge (orange Splatterhouse).
If this four-store concept sounds familiar, you may recall that this is exactly how Starbucks approached design in the mid-aughts with its "aroma," "harvest," "roast," and "brew" stores. Taco Bell has made a habit of reproducing Starbucks’s store strategy, which has included container stores, tiny stores, and boozy stores, not to mention high-end lighting coupled with warm wood finishes. But Starbucks eventually decided to pull the best ideas from its four-store approach into one mix-and-matchable look book.
However, look closely and you’ll realize that despite having four looks, Taco Bell actually has a lot less variety in its furnishings than Starbucks. The layout in these renderings is exactly the same, while most customization is in the sconces, paneling, and a few coats of paint. "The designs share furniture structure and operational concepts to ensure consistency and efficiency for our team members," says Brand. "The biggest differences will be in the finishes and focal points. For example, California Sol will have larger patios because of its focus on outdoor space."
Sharing furniture and other core elements of the interior design comes with another major benefit: It allows Taco Bell to buy in bulk and save a lot of money. The savings is so great that the company says it can remodel a Taco Bell with one of these new designs for the same price it could cost them to remodel its existing design.
Whether or not you or I like the mashup interior design, in reality, this is fast food we're talking about, and most any Taco Bell would benefit from such a comfort-focused facelift. If Taco Bell has figured out a way to build a more comfortable, welcoming store experience for the same cost, why not?
All Photos: courtesy Taco Bell