Taco Bell hopes wine-serving 'Cantinas' will become urban hotspots

Taco Bell is unveiling new urban, upscale locations called 'Taco Bell Cantinas.'  They will feature murals, appetizers, and open-kitchen designs.

Stephan Savoia/AP/File
This Thursday, July 9, 2015 photo shows a Taco Bell, a Yum Brands restaurant, in Pembroke, Mass.

Looking for a swanky night out? Consider Taco Bell.  

On September 22, the Mexican style fast food chain will open up a new location in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood featuring a tapas-style menu of appetizers, a mural from a local artist, and even alcoholic beverages. It's the first of the chain's 'Taco Bell Cantina' test locations, aimed at catering to a younger crowd increasingly concentrated in city centers.  

Taco Bell, which has nearly 6,000 US locations, is rooted primarily in suburban areas and associated with cheap, quick eats, like the wildly popular Doritos Locos Taco. With the average Taco Bell tab in the $7 range, the company has utilized drive-throughs and fast service to attract the quantity of customers needed to turn a profit. But to cater to Millennials "seeking more urban environments to live, work, and play," according to Taco Bell, the test locations must follow a different model, with smaller footprints and pricier options.

“To put in a drive-thru you need land. Can you imagine buying an acre of land in a neighborhood like Wicker Park? You couldn’t afford it,” Neil Borkan, the Taco Bell franchisee who will operate the Chicago  location told USA TODAY.

At the Chicago location, new menu items will be prepared alongside Taco Bell's traditional offerings in an open kitchen, where "you will literally be able to see the food" before it's prepared, Taco Bell’s Chief Development Officer Meredith Sandland told the Associated Press.

The new location will also serve wine, beer, and frozen alcoholic drinks, echoing recent moves by many of Taco Bell's competitors. Seventy-five Starbucks cafes now offer “evening” menus that include beer, wine, and small snacks. 1One thousand out of Chipotle’s roughly 1,900 restaurants offer alcoholic beverages.

Another Taco Bell Cantina location will be opened in San Francisco near AT&T Park later this month, according to the company, eschewing a drive-thru and parking lot for a patio and a pickup window. Those changes in location, atmosphere, and additions all point to the fast food chain aiming to attract a clientele beyond those looking for late night junk food.

Taco Bell first set its sights on a higher quality food line in 2012, when it unveiled pricier Cantina bowls and burritos to compete with Chipotle, along with an accompanying ad campaign focusing on the new items' protein content.

If successful, the Cantina locations will be yet another step in that upscale push. Taco Bell said it plans to add 2,000 locations in the US by 2022. Ms. Sandland told the AP, “several hundred” of them will be “Cantinas.”

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