Taco Bell Partnership Delivers Again for Dairy

  • 3 min read November 10, 2020
  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

There’s never a time when I’m not amazed by and thankful for the checkoff’s partnerships with global foodservice leaders.

This partnership model started in 2009 with McDonald’s and Domino’s. We added Taco Bell in 2012 and Pizza Hut in 2014.

Collectively, these partnerships have grown U.S. dairy sales by 2.2 billion milk equivalent pounds and averaged 3% growth since their creation. And they’ve given people across the country more dairy-centric menu items to enjoy.

For example, Taco Bell’s Quesalupa, which had five times the cheese of a normal taco, delivered 60 million milk equivalent pounds. Butter at McDonald’s delivered 500 million milk equivalent pounds in the first year. While every partner continues to move the dairy needle, I want to acknowledge Taco Bell for the great year we have enjoyed. 

When our partnership started, Taco Bell viewed cheese as a “garnish,” no different than lettuce or tomatoes. Our goal was to prove the power of dairy and celebrate how cheese and its ability to transform through its melting properties could create a positive consumer experience.

Mike Ciresi, a DMI senior dairy scientist who works at Taco Bell’s headquarters in Irvine, Calif., co-managed two important and successful projects this year. His efforts led to Taco Bell unveiling the Grilled Cheese Burrito, its cheesiest new offering of 2020, and a Pineapple Whip Freeze beverage that contains real dairy.

Bringing these products from concept to reality is never an easy or fast process. It requires a lot of brainstorming, patience and, of course, buy-in from a partner such as Taco Bell. In the end, the efforts are certainly worth it and are beneficial to dairy farmers.

The Grilled Cheese Burrito, which was unveiled on July 2 as a limited-time offering, is about as dairy-centric as it gets. Yum! Brands CEO David Gibbs hailed its popularity, saying it accounted for 9% of the chain’s orders.

The burrito features a blend of mozzarella, cheddar and pepper jack cheeses in addition to sour cream, beef, rice, crunchy red strips and chipotle sauce. A layer of cheese is then grilled around the tortilla.

Hungry yet?

What made this product possible, though, was some added ingenuity from Mike. For the signature layer of cheese to be grilled around the tortilla, a special heat-resistant paper was necessary. Without that, it would be impossible for Taco Bell restaurants around the country to create the perfect burrito every time. Mike, however, eventually found a product that worked, allowing Taco Bell fans to enjoy this flavorful, cheesy experience.

The Pineapple Whip, released May 21 also on a limited-time basis, was a landmark launch for Taco Bell as it is the chain’s first beverage to contain dairy since we formed our partnership. This launch was four years in the works as it required clearing significant hurdles to make it happen. The biggest challenge is that Taco Bells across the country aren’t designed with refrigeration near their drink stations to store dairy products.

So, Mike, with support from Emil Nashed, who leads DMI’s Global Innovation Partnerships science team, joined DMI’s Product Research Team and the Midwest Dairy Center at the University of Minnesota to collaborate on a solution. Midwest is part of the National Dairy Foods Research Center program that receives national and local checkoff support. Its six centers encompass the expertise and resources of 17 universities.

The team created a dairy-based, shelf-stable creamer that consists of real cream and met Taco Bell’s product requirements.

These menu items show the spirit of teamwork and collaboration that exists with our partnerships. It’s rewarding to see how much we have in common with a partner such as Taco Bell and how far we have come together. No longer is cheese a garnish. Look at any menu item and you’ll cheese is front and center in naming, product formulation and, importantly, advertising.

The next time you head to Taco Bell or McDonald’s or when you order from Pizza Hut or Domino’s, know that it’s very likely the food you are enjoying may have originated from the ingenuity of your dairy checkoff.