Can This Waffle Save America?

First came the Doritos Locos Tacos. Now Taco Bell brings us the waffle taco. Daniel Gross on America’s booming (if bizarre) breakfast economy.

Taco Bell/AP

Wake up, dudes, Taco Bell is starting to serve breakfast.

After extensive tests in Southern California, the chain on Thursday will roll out a breakfast menu at 100 stores in Fresno, Omaha, and Chattanooga. The centerpiece is a waffle that resembles a taco. (A wafo? A waco? A taffle?) “It’s a waffle wrapped around all the goodness of breakfast,” said Liz Matthews, chief food innovation officer at Taco Bell. And by “goodness,” she means eggs and sausage. “And then you put the syrup on top.”

Is this the latest fast-food innovation that could help create thousands jobs and help save the economy, much like the Doritos Locos Tacos have attempted to do? Or is it simply the latest step in a trend of using sweet dough as sandwich material? After all, McDonald’s has the McGriddle, and Dunkin’ Donuts recently busted out a donut-bacon sandwich.

To a large degree, it’s just sound industrial management. Fast food like Taco Bell is a highly industrialized manufactured and distribution process. (Disclosure: I love Taco Bell.) The stores function like factories. And every factory wants to run three shifts, around the clock. Companies are paying for the overhead, so they might as well make the most out of it. If you let productive capacity sit idle, it’s difficult to make a profit, especially in a climate where consumer demand isn’t growing much.

Breakfast also solves a second problem for fast food companies. Slow demand has been a persistent problem for the restaurant industry. “During the last decade, Americans have not used restaurants more, except at one time of the day—the morning,” said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm. Pressed for time, and eager to grab food and go, Americans are increasingly having their first meal of the day outside the home—and on the road.

The typical American eats takeout breakfast in his car about eight times per year. That’s about 2.5 billion breakfasts annually. And what do we like to eat while sitting in our cars? “The fastest growing food at breakfast time has been breakfast sandwiches, not coffee,” said Belzer.

This is nothing new, of course. McDonald’s has been offering breakfast for decades, and the company says breakfast accounts for about 15 percent of sales. But the economics of the industry help explain why chains like Taco Bell are jumping on the bandwagon, and why places that already offer breakfast are rolling out heartier sandwichlike fare. Dunkin’ Donuts peddles protein-laden sandwiches. Starbucks has added sausage and cheese sandwiches. Also, breakfast-type products seem to be getting more popular—at all times of the day. McDonald’s in May ascribed rising sales to the fact that many restaurants now offer breakfast at all hours of the day.

The only mystery is that it has taken Taco Bell so long to join the breakfast club. Breakfast burritos and tacos are staples of Mexican cuisine. In theory, a breakfast taco or burrito can contain all the basic food groups: grains, vegetables, protein, some dairy. Of course, Taco Bell has come around to breakfast in its own way, and on its own timetable. “This has been a journey for us,” Matthews admits. It’s going after the same dudes who flock to the concept of a taco in a Dorito shell, or burritos with Fritos inside of them. (A thing I learned today: at Taco Bell, they refer to the Doritos Locos Tacos as simply, “the DLT.”) So naturally the tortilla has been replaced by a waffle. For protein, there are eggs and sausage. The vegetables are nowhere to be seen.

Other products include steak-and-egg burritos, and the AM Crunch Wrap. It’s a tortilla stuffed with eggs, cheese and a pork product. What makes it crunch? “The hash browns inside,” said Matthews. Also, it’s grilled. But the menu, which Matthews said tested quite well at California stores, is not all savory and salty fare. For a little balance, people can try the Cinnabon Delights – i.e. little donuts heaped with frosting. “And on the lighter end,” said Matthews, “there’s yogurt parfaits and whole grain Quaker oatmeal.” (Something tells me the lighter end will be the lighter-ordered end of the menu.) There’s coffee, too.

But the pièce de résistance may well be a new “breakfast drink.” Produced by Pepsi, it consists of 5 percent orange juice and the rest Mountain Dew. At 90 calories per serving, said Matthews, it’s a mid-calorie beverage.

In this age of the fat police and growing attention to obesity and health, rolling out a breakfast line designed to make epicures gag and nutritionists recoil in horror may seem ill-advised. On the other hand, stuffing a traditional taco into a Dorito shell worked pretty damned well for the chain. (In fact, on August 22 Taco Bell will debut a new Doritos Locos Tacos flavor.)

“We’re pretty bullish,” Matthews said. “We’re going in big.”