(IRVINE, Calif.) — The latest flashpoint in America’s fast food wars and the hottest thing on the counter is not a new hamburger or fries product.
It’s Taco Bell’s transformation of the traditional taco with its Doritos and Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos, and if they have their say in it, the entire fast food industry.
So far, the company has sold more than 400 million Doritos Loco tacos since it debuted last year.
“We’re selling more than 1 million a day, which is quite amazing,” Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed said. “It’s a very simple idea, Doritos on the outside, the classic taste of Taco Bell on the inside. You do it because no one else can do it.”
It is an atypical product for an atypical boss.
“I’m the Australian guy selling Mexican food to Americans,” Creed said.
When Creed, 54, joined Taco Bell 12 years ago, he said he knew he had an image problem on his hands.
“Cheap, messy, low quality, that was probably the perception 12 years ago and I think we’ve done hopefully an amazing job of turning that around,” he said.
What they have tried to turn around is how customers view Taco Bell and the quality of its food.
Inside Taco Bell’s headquarters in Irvine, Calif., Creed seemed to know every employee and how long they had been working at the company. He tried to make the place feel more like a dot-com startup, with a game room and a state-of-the-art gym, rather than a $6.8 billion-per-year fast food company.
Founder Glen Bell — hence the name Taco Bell — probably never imagined a nuclear-orange taco shell when he built the first Taco Bell restaurant in the early 1960s. Back then, few Americans had heard of tacos. Even today, out of the top 10 fast food chains, Taco Bell is the only one selling Mexican cuisine.
But as Taco Bell has climbed to be the sixth-largest fast food chain in the United States, it faces a familiar criticism that it is contributing to the nation’s obesity problem. One of the knocks critics have on Taco Bell’s products is that they are unhealthy, but Creed said his tacos are actually low-calorie.
“The calories count in tacos is quite low. I think it’s like less than 200 calories is in a taco. But the great thing about Taco Bell is you’ve got choice,” he said. “We’re very conscious about giving people choice, but it’s up to the people, for them to make it. I can’t force them to eat whatever I put on my menu.”
Creed added that his company secretly took “a million and a half pounds of sodium” out of their products in the last two years.
“We’ve told nobody and the reason we’ve told nobody is because people worry if you take sodium out it’s not going to taste as good,” he said.
Michael Moss, the author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, spent years researching the big food companies. Moss, who knows firsthand how hard companies work to make a product that will make you crave more, said the amount of salt in fast food is just one health concern of many.
“They haven’t diminished the allure of the product,” he said. “While they are reducing the salt they sure haven’t reduced the sugar and fat and people are still lured to snack foods that are heavy in the calorie things, the sugar and the fat, and that’s the issue when it comes to obesity.”
But Creed insists that Taco Bell isn’t ignoring the growing obesity epidemic. The company launched a slew of ads with “Master Chef” Lorena Garcia for its new Cantina Bell line, which is touted as a healthy meal option and is aimed to grab women’s attention.
“We’re not trying to be Chipotle, we’re just trying to be the best Taco Bell we can be,” Creed said.
And Taco Bell isn’t the only one of the fast food giants pursuing healthier options. McDonalds and Burger King offer salads and wraps, and KFC now offers grilled chicken alongside its famous fried version.
Taco Bell’s rollout of each new menu item now includes a modern marketing strategy, using social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to try to create buzz.
A fan once tweeted that a Taco Bell was coming to the tiny town of Bethel, Alaska, but it wasn’t true. Just so the town wouldn’t be disappointed, Taco Bell flew in a truck of tacos, turning the social media moment into a fan frenzy and even an advertisement. Now the taco tycoons say they have the burger giants in their crosshairs.
“I think in the next 10 years we’re going to have to hire another 100,000 people at Taco Bell,” he said. “Not just because of this taco, but this taco created growth…we think can build another 2,000 restaurants in the next 10 years to go from 6,000 to 8,000.”
A big part of that growth is not just food production, but also customer service. Employees are expected to fill orders in less than 65 seconds.
Up next is the Flamas version of its taco, a hotter and spicier Doritos flavor, coming to a Taco Bell near you by the end of this year.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Jill Disis, CNN
Jethro Mullen Ivana Kottasova and Patrick Gillespie, CNN