Over the past few years, Taco Bell has made a point of positioning itself as the rowdy teenager of the fast food industry, catering primarily to a younger, hipper clientele. It’s a strategy that’s done wonders for the once-struggling brand, which has become the crown jewel of its parent company, Yum! Brands, on the strength of late hours, specialty burritos, breakfast, and the wildly successful launch of the Doritos Locos taco.
Now, the Mexican fast food chain has decided that children don’t quite fit in with that target market. Taco Bell announced Tuesday that it will start to phase out kids meals and toys, starting this month. The last Taco Bell kids’ meal should be sold in January 2014, according to the company.
“This is about positioning the brand for Millennials,” Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed told USA Today. "It's fairly inconsistent for an edgy, twentysomething brand to offer kids meals."
Kids meals have been an afterthought at Taco Bell for over a decade. Mr. Creed told The Huffington Post that he’s wanted to get rid of them since he came on board as chief executive in 2001, and the company stopped advertising specifically to children that year. Presently, kids meals make up less than 1 percent of Taco Bell’s gross sales.
Taco Bell says it’s the first national chain to eliminate its kids meals altogether (burger chain Jack in the Box got rid of its free toys in 2011). But there’s a good chance it won’t be the last: The move comes at a time when kids meals are falling out of favor, both financially and culturally. Restaurant purchases that included kids meals with a toy dropped 6 percent in 2011, according to a report released last year by research firm the NPD Group.
Furthermore, health advocates have been lobbying against kids meals for ages, arguing that using a toy to lure a child to eat a less than healthy meal potentially promotes bad eating habits and obesity. Indeed, Taco Bell is being praised for dropping the practice. “Taco Bell is taking a constructive step forward by no longer using toys to encourage kids to pester their parents to go to that restaurant,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement Monday. “We urge McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and others to follow Taco Bell’s lead and stop using toys or other premiums to lure kids to meals of poor nutritional quality.”
“We find this move encouraging, even if it was not done out of interest for children’s nutrition,” food blogger Hemi Weingarten of Fooducate.com wrote Tuesday. “This is because marketing to children is one of the critical factors in childhood obesity. Marketers have known for years that brand loyalty should be forged as early as possible in a consumer’s life.”
But promoting healthy eating habits is secondary to the chain’s branding concerns. "To some extent, hopefully it's empowering parents," Creed told Huffington Post.
The items previously available on Taco Bell’s kids menu – crunchy and soft tacos, burritos, cinnamon twists, and small sodas – will still be available a la carte.