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Taco Bell Moves Beyond the Drive-Thru With Smaller Urban Stores

Most of the new 300-plus city locations will serve alcohol

Inside the first Taco Bell Cantina, located in Chicago’s Wicker Park

With more than 6,000 locations across the country and a penchant for increasingly stunt-y menu items like fried chicken shell tacos, Taco Bell is one of America’s most prolific fast-food chains. A suburban mainstay, the average Taco Bell location gets somewhere between 55 and 70 percent of its business via the drive-thru window — but now it’s poised to open hundreds of stores that won’t have drive-thrus at all.

Taco Bell is making a major push into big cities, with plans to open between 300 and 350 locations in urban areas by 2022. Rather than free-standing stores with the all-important drive-thru windows, these forthcoming stores will be what the company refers to as “urban in-line” locations: constructed inside or taking over an existing building on a row, they have a significantly smaller footprint and focus on bringing foot traffic to the store with localized design and artwork, open kitchens, and digital menu boards.

A Taco Bell Cantina store in Cleveland
Taco Bell

“[Growth has] been a challenge in the U.S. because you have a very mature market and it’s hard to find space [for more locations],” Taco Bell’s chief operating officer Mike Grams says. “One of the cool things happening in America right now is the revitalization of urban areas, and we’re seeing millennials moving into downtown areas.”

While the chain is currently targeting New York City, intending to open 50 stores in Manhattan and the outer boroughs over the next five years, and Chicago, where it debuted the first Taco Bell Cantina location back in 2015, the urban expansion plan also includes Detroit, Pittsburgh, Nashville, and multiple cities on the West Coast.

Localized artwork at a Taco Bell Cantina in Cleveland
Taco Bell

Most of these upcoming urban locations will be Taco Bell Cantina locations, meaning they’ll serve alcohol in the form of beer, wine, sangria, and Twisted Freezes, slushy drinks that can have tequila, rum, or vodka added to them. The very first Cantina location opened in Chicago’s Wicker Park and there are now a handful of the concepts across the country, including locations in Cleveland and San Francisco and a flagship store in Vegas. In addition to booze, these new store models feature millennial bait in the form of a menu of “shareable” items like chicken fingers and nachos.

Grams acknowledged that Taco Bell’s push into big cities, where diners often have more sophisticated tastes, may have an effect on future menu innovations. As an example, he cited the Naked Chicken Chalupa, a limited-run menu item of which the chain sold a whopping 27 million in just six weeks. “We’re not locked into it has to be a taco or a burrito,” Grams said. “This brand more than any other isn’t afraid to try new things.”

Taco Bell Will Open 50 NYC Stores in Next Five Years [Eater NY]
Taco Bell Plans to Open More Boozy Cantinas [E]