Lifestyle & Culture

For whom the Bell tolls (updated): Could Eindhoven be a preview of Taco Bell’s future in Europe?

(Editor’s note: This post was updated on 6 May with comment from a Taco Bell executive.)

There’s a scene in “Demolition Man” (set in the near future) in which Sandra Bullock breaks the news to time traveler Sylvester Stallone that Taco Bell was the only restaurant to survive “the Franchise Wars.”

Now all restaurants are Taco Bell.

As I’ve said before, the digital infrastructure and contemporary architecture make Eindhoven feel like a preview of the future. So it’s no surprise the Netherlands’ first Taco Bell opened here last month and not Amsterdam … and that the LA-based faux Mexican chain’s store is several magnitudes cooler than those in the United States.

Welcome to the future?

I had a theory the store here on Eindhoven’s High Street is a test store for developing a prototype for Western Europe.

I shot an email to Taco Bell media people to find out.

Here’s what we got back from Richa Anand, Taco Bell spokeswoman for International Public Relations in LA:

We’re all about ensuring we provide people with the Taco Bell they know and love, with a local twist. With all markets, we don’t directly apply a cookie cutter décor and design package, because that doesn’t allow us to celebrate the creativity of the brand or the locals. In Spain for example, the décor has more of a beachy boho vibe, whereas the Netherlands aesthetic is a lot more urban and raw.

Along with our open kitchen and California inspired contemporary décor, our global designers work closely with local architects to create a restaurant that is unique and relevant to each market. With Eindhoven specially, we also worked with two local artists to create a space in the restaurant that paid tribute to the Eindhoven community.

So, no, each store will be a one-off, it appears. And yeah, they went to a lot of trouble to personalize this store for Eindhoven.

Taco Bell and all American fast-food chains are looking at several challenges in Europe they don’t have in the United States.

• First, the market characteristics are reversed. People with disposable income in European cities live in the city proper, with the poor consigned to the suburbs. Most fast-food outlets are in the commercial center in shopping districts, in urban shopping malls or in train stations.

So, it’s more difficult to build stand-alone stores here, which have the huge benefit of drive-thrus. In the U.S., drive-thrus typically account for 40 percent of traffic at Taco Bells.

The view from the dining loft.

• Second, U.S. fast-food fans have lower expectations. The Taco Bell stores there have all been upgraded, but they’re unremarkable. By comparison, Yum! Brands franchisee Andrew Stewart spent some serious money here for a franchisee-owned store.

The Eindhoven store is easily the coolest Taco Bell you will ever see. But it’s hard to believe it could be a big cash generator in a business where fast-food outlets have the potential to generate up to $300 per square foot (or, in this case, 3000 euros per square meter.)

The Eindhoven store is waaay small, with 80 seats in a space chopped up with little alcoves. It’s only a ground floor and basically a dining loft/mezzanine whereas the KFC a couple of blocks away is more than twice as large, with four floors. Both the KFC and Taco Bell do SRO business throughout the day, which tells you a little bit about the fast-food revolution going on here.

No Taco Bell in the U.S. is clean enough to show the public the kitchen … please.

The edgy structural steel and exposed brick interior of the retrofit urban Taco Bell reflects Eindhoven’s character as an industrial center, with high-tech lighting, an open, glass-enclosed kitchen, and graffiti-style graphics.

It’s really a space designed to be at its most dramatic at night … too one-off to be a prototype.

So, why Eindhoven for the debut?

Again, from Richa Anand at Taco Bell:

The Eindhoven community has so many interesting traits that are aligned with who we are as a brand, being creative, proud and dynamic, so when the opportunity arose, we couldn’t say no to Eindhoven being the home of the first Taco Bell in Holland.

The city itself has a lot of unique individuals who are young, and young at heart, which is the perfect fit for the ‘first’ Taco Bell in the Netherlands. With institutions like Dynamo and the Design Academy, there is so much creativity that makes the city of Eindhoven dynamic and diverse, which is aligned with our drive at Taco Bell. Eindhoven is also a good size city with a great mix of local and international customers. It is a vibrant city that is full of creativity, and we are proud to become part of that landscape, with our unique Mexican-inspired tastes and contemporary asset. We have a great location here which caters to every meal occasion and we look forward to introducing the Eindhoven locals to the tastes of Taco Bell.

Will Europe heed the call of The Bell?

• The third issue here is that labor is generally, though not always, more expensive and comes with requirements to provide health care and benefits that no fast-food franchise offers in the U.S. That said, Hamid and the other people taking orders were super nice and, of course, multi-lingual. They made it a much nicer experience than the typical visit in the U.S. Oh, and they had beer!

A bow to Eindhoven’s history as home to Philips, a pioneering lighting company.

Okay, I’m going into the American-to-American mode for a minute, so non-American expat friends, hold tight.

Americans can’t get enough of the stuff. Most of us have been eating the tasty, affordable offerings at Taco Bell since we were kids. This is as American as hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Maybe more so, because how many times do you really eat hot dogs and apple pie? Or a Chevy, for that matter ….

Yum Brands CEO Greg Creed, who ran Taco Bell for eight years, told CNBC last October that Taco Bell would do about $10 billion in total U.S. sales for 2016.

“Half the U.S. population (of 320 million) eats Taco Bell once a month. The average people come every 11 days,” Creed is quoted as saying.  The Taco Bell Facebook page has 15.5 million friends, for crying out loud. So this is an institution.

In Europe, Taco Bell is starting from scratch. As far as I can tell, Eindhoven has the first Taco Bell in Northern Europe outside U.S. military bases in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

Will Europeans – especially young Europeans – embrace the ever-changing offerings at the most experimental fast food concept, where test kitchens constantly crank out new products such as the Crunchwrap Supreme?

Okay, back to our regular programming.

This is Europe, so you can get a beer at Taco Bell. And yes, all the signage is in English at a Dutch store.

In Eindhoven, the menu diverges from the American Bells in that there are filling choices here including pulled pork for the tacos. But compared to an American Taco Bell, offerings here are very limited.

No Beefy Crunch Burritos; none of the endless variations on burritos and tacos that spill out of the Taco Bell test kitchens.


Playing catch-up with McDonald’s, KFC

Yum! Brands plans to go big here just like they did in China with KFC, where there are now 7,600 stores, with a goal of opening 30,000.

By comparison, only 330 of the 7,000 total Taco Bell stores are outside the U.S.

McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC all have thousands of stores from Eastern Europe to Spain. All their stores are clean, fully staffed, well designed and the product perfectly aligned with their U.S. products.

Taco Bell’s only real presence in Europe is in Spain, with about 30 stores, the UK and now little Eindhoven.

This is just a guess, expats, but don’t be surprised if the store you get in, say, Berlin or Brussels ends up being somewhat like Eindhoven.

A one-off designer space operated by a franchise, more in tune with local culture and tastes than with the corporate sensibilities of Yum! Brands.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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