Light's Out: Taco Bell Cuts Most Low-Cal Menu Items

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taco Bell Corp. on Tuesday said it is trimming the lean from its menu by cutting five low-fat burritos and tacos that were introduced early last year in a splashy, $75-million advertising campaign.

The PepsiCo Inc. subsidiary plans to trim the number of low-calorie Border Lights alternatives on its menu to three items from the current eight, and instead offer customers the option of substituting no-fat cheddar cheese and sour cream in its regular menu items.

Restaurant industry observers said that Border Lights' failure to ignite stronger consumer support was not surprising, given America's love of fast food that tastes great--regardless of health concerns.

Last month, for example, McDonald's abandoned its ill-fated McLean Deluxe burger after it failed to capture America's taste buds.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, and a frequent critic of fast-food chains, applauded the Irvine-based company's bid to sell healthier food.

"Border Lights were not a flop," Jacobson said. "I think the company made a great effort. They certainly promoted them well initially. And it's heartening that they'll continue to make low-fat cheese and sour cream available on all of their products."

While the Border Lights line accounts for $600 million, or 9%, of Taco Bell's annual systemwide sales of $4.5 billion, the line hasn't reached the 30% level envisioned by Taco Bell Chairman John Martin, who once described the healthy fare as a revolutionary idea that would "redefine" the fast-food industry.

Restaurant industry observers stopped short of describing Border Lights as a failure, however, and Taco Bell officials defended the line as a "significant success" in an industry where products must generate a minimum of $100 million in annual sales to be judged successful.

"The line now accounts for a significant percentage of their overall business," said Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based consulting firm. "And, from a marketing point of view, Border Lights makes sense because it helped to broaden Taco Bell's appeal."

Paul, however, described Taco Bell's decision to put Border Lights on a diet as further proof that, when it comes to fast food, most Americans go for the taste and relegate health concerns to a distant second.

"I also think that there continues to be a rebellion against so-called experts who tell us what to eat," Paul said. "And as the level of mistrust grows, people decide to stop thinking about what they should or shouldn't eat."

Brea-based restaurant industry consultant Robert Sandelman said that younger consumers, who form the core of fast-food diners, have always placed health far below convenience, taste, value and cleanliness.

Taco Bell and other fast-food leaders can't afford to ignore younger diners because, even though they account for just 33% of total customers, they generate nearly 75% of total transactions.

"That's why you see Taco Bell introducing all the new items with bacon, and the overall increased appearance of beef in fast-food menus," Sandelman said. "People want that kind of taste."

While the Border Lights line was introduced with great fanfare--including a $10-million food giveaway and a television advertising campaign that premiered during the Super Bowl telecast--Taco Bell won't be spending heavily to promote the new light alternatives.

Instead, Taco Bell will use in-store signs inviting customers to "lighten up" by ordering the three remaining Border Lights items and substitute no-fat cheese and sour cream for higher-fat ingredients.

Taco Bell will continue to spend heavily on advertising that promotes its traditionally heavy fare, including new items like the bacon cheeseburger burrito and a soft taco with bacon, lettuce and tomato.

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