For big food companies, opening a small, hip outlet is a way to gauge changing tastes and cozy up to new customers, particularly those in their 20s and 30s.
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — At a taco shop in Southern California, milkshakes are served in Mason jars and a chalkboard menu lists “The 1%er” made with lobster meat.
The logo is a pink skull and instead of buzzers, customers are given license plates so servers can identify them when bringing out orders.
Nowhere is it evident that the U.S. Taco Co. is an outpost of a chain better known for cheesy gut bombs: Taco Bell.
Major companies are testing whether it would pay to tuck away their world famous logos in favor of more hipster guises: PepsiCo, for instance, introduced a craft soda called Caleb’s last year and McDonald’s opened a cafe that lists lentils and eggplant on its menu.
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For big food companies, the low-key efforts are a way to gauge changing tastes and cozy up to new customers, particularly those in their 20s and 30s. Among that age group, marketing experts say there’s a growing preference for qualities like “real” and “authentic.” Additionally, millennials aren’t as impressed by big brands when it comes to food, and instead take pride in discovering and sharing new places and products with friends on social-media networks.
As such, Allen Adamson of Landor Associates, a brand-consulting firm, said companies should keep the images for their latest efforts smaller and more niche: “You don’t want to scream from the mountain top that you’re Pepsi.”
McDonald’s also decided not to use its name recognition when it opened The Corner late last year.
The restaurant in Australia has a minimalist white exterior and serves dishes like Moroccan roast chicken, chipotle pulled pork and lentil and eggplant salad. The only sign it’s owned by McDonald’s is the “McCafe” in small print at the bottom of the restaurant logo.
McDonald’s spokeswoman Becca Hary said in an email the location is a “learning lab” for testing “new and different food and beverages never before seen in our restaurants.”
In other cases, companies acquire smaller, fast-growing rivals to tap into trends. But acquisitions can be costly and come with risks, particularly at a time when food trends seem to be changing at an accelerating pace.
By developing a brand in house, companies can test the waters without making as much of a financial commitment. If they’re lucky, it takes off and becomes a hit.