When it comes to choosing the mound of bleached wheat flour and salted beef that most suits their lifestyle, the deciding factor for 21st-century youth is, unquestionably, whether that meat-pile is “on trend.” Today’s savvy millennials want a haystack of saturated fats that speaks to them, in their own language—and as food technology is still years away from perfecting fried, edible hashtags, restaurants such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell that want to be perceived as “hip” for some reason have had to focus on rebranding. After all, without these chains convincing younger customers of their coolness, they’d be left with only their billions of other consumers worldwide who patronize them anyway.
So rather than face being a totally uncool, multibillion-dollar melted cheese monopoly, McDonald’s gave Ronald McDonald some cargo pants and put him on Twitter. It’s an update that follows in the footsteps of Chuck E. Cheese’s transformation into a pop-punk pizza rat, and the Cheerios bee’s makeover into the reason your dad knows the word “swag,” and heralds the McDonald’s spokesclown embarking on a new social media campaign meant to promote the idea of “fun.” And in order to show that clowns can sometimes be fun, the company has replaced Ronald’s stuffy old bright yellow jumpsuit with cargo pants, a utility vest, and a striped rugby shirt—the sort of carefree yet functional wardrobe you’d maybe see on a Gap model or sexless aunt.
Of course, as today’s hip fashion is marked by a sense of ironically detached eccentricity, Ronald also sometimes sports a “whimsical new red blazer” and bowtie—a Wes Anderson-inspired ensemble that McDonald’s says is “reserved for special occasions,” such as talking about hamburgers. Presumably it was determined a handlebar mustache simply didn’t “read” against the face paint.
Finally, in a statement that manages to capture the palpable desperation behind all modern rebranding efforts in just four short words, the McDonald’s press release quotes Ronald as saying, “Selfies… here I come!”
Meanwhile, Taco Bell has faced its own questions about how to change its brand perception as a place for cut-rate Mexican cuisine—an accurate image which has so far yielded them untold profits, but zero flattering Instagram photos. So no doubt after abandoning its usual strategy of arranging its tortillas and beans in a slightly different way (“Maybe this time we put a burrito inside the taco shell?” asked one desperate developer), the company has instead decided to fulfill the prophecies of Demolition Man and launch the upscale “fast-casual” U.S. Taco Co. And Urban Taproom.
Like its faux-industrial, New American gastropub name suggests, U.S. Taco Co. will stuff its tortillas with a more food truck-inspired, “fusion” range of ingredients. This includes tacos like the “Winner Winner,” a fried chicken breast topped with South of the Border (or “SOB”) gravy and roasted corn pico de gallo. Or the “One Percenter,” which is lobster poached in garlic butter with red cabbage slaw. Or the “Brotherly Love,” U.S. Taco’s “nod to the Philly Cheesesteak,” with roasted poblano queso and absolutely nothing to do with Philadelphia.
These tacos are accompanied by steak fries blanketed with “habanero dust,” and milkshakes swirled with craft beers then served in Mason jars—the only acceptable drinking vessel of today’s trendsetters. In keeping with the sense of heritage at play, you eat these things with your hands. Your hands are coated with skin, just like laborers wore at the turn of the century.
To announce the launch of U.S. Taco Co., Taco Bell’s CEO Greg Creed released a statement in which he visibly strained to avoid saying the word “hipster”:
Creed said U.S. Taco Co. was born of a segmentation study conducted on Taco Bell that revealed a fairly large demographic that was not likely to use quick-service restaurants at all. Rather than spend millions trying to lure those potential diners into Taco Bell, Creed’s team decided to design a new concept that would appeal to that demographic, which includes an eclectic mix of generally higher-income foodies who are “edgy in how they live their lives but not necessarily in how they eat,” he said.
For now, the U.S. Taco Co. And Urban Taproom And Restoration Fart Bistro is a concept limited solely to one test location, set to open in Huntington Beach, California. There the edginess of eating tacos filled with things that aren’t typically inside tacos will be underscored by a décor featuring a “a prominent skull logo that will serve as a ‘beacon’ of sorts.” (“That skull and its connotations really speak to the edginess with which I live my life,” these higher-income foodies will say. “Its reminder of the ever-looming specter of death compels me to live every day like it’s my last by eating a $4 Taco Bell taco.”)
From there the hope is that—like Ronald McDonald’s social media world tour—U.S. Taco Co. could quickly move to other cities, at last bringing some edginess to your town. In the meantime, you’ll just have to try to enjoy your fast food some other way, such as eating it quickly and not really thinking about it.