Del Taco hits refresh

Del Taco has always been known for delivering value in the Mexican QSR space. But as a perennial bridesmaid to Taco Bell, the brand wanted to better communicate what it sees as its points of differentiation: made-to-order freshness and top quality ingredients. Consumer focus groups conducted in 2009 by Lieberman Research Worldwide revealed that this message wasn’t getting across with Del Taco’s image—interior colors were drab and dated and there was a lack of freshness cues in every store. In-depth surveys provided more input, leading Del Taco to partner with a design firm to develop a new prototype.

“Three designs were presented and we tested them with six more focus groups,” says Del Taco CEO Paul Murphy. “People liked specific elements from each.”

The goal was to emphasize Del Taco’s Cal-Mex roots, which extend back 50 years. Simple graphics, natural materials and modern, clean lines replaced a cluttered, boxy generic look. The first full prototype opened in August 2011 in McKinney, Texas and management conducted in-store interviews to elicit real-time feedback. As the makeover proceeded chainwide, consumer research continued and more changes were made. The final design is the culmination of all the feedback and in-store observations, “but we are still open to improvements as we re-image or build future locations,” says Murphy. The latest Del Taco prototype opened in Westminster, Calif., in November 2013.

Among the most notable updates:

  • A color palette of red, green and yellow is meant to evoke freshness and energy. When consumers commented that the lime green seats didn’t match the walls, the color was adjusted.
  • New modular seating aimed for “contemporary” but feedback labeled it “cafeteria-like” and “uncomfortable.” Padded seats solved one problem, and as per consumer request, booth seating and high top tables were added to the design.
  • Low walls were erected to break up and separate the space, creating a different feel in each dining room.
  • Flexible design adapts to a range of 1,800 to 3,400 square feet per store.
  • A curved roof was modified to lower the ceiling with the intention of evoking a warmer, more intimate interior; the change also lowered operational costs by simplifying maintenance and saving energy. But consumers liked the curves, so a curved element tops the exterior tower and a curved canopy sits over the doorway.
  • Vivid food art panels decorate the dining area, showing photos of the fresh ingredients used in Del Taco’s kitchen. Previously, this was conveyed by word messages alone. “We can’t just tell—we have to show. Seeing is believing,” says Murphy.
  • That same thinking went into the latest addition in test—a “freshness” cooler—an idea suggested by franchisee Paul Hitzelberger. Positioned behind the register, it holds blocks of cheese, fresh vegetables and other raw ingredients to reinforce the made-from-scratch message. “It adds another layer of credibility,” Murphy believes.

By the end of 2013, 85 percent of Del Taco’s 550 stores had been rebuilt or re-imaged; the remaining 15 percent will be completed in 2014. Consumers appear to like the makeover and new prototype. In December, 55 percent of surveyed guests gave the renovated restaurants the highest score for “attractive and inviting,” compared to 45 percent a year earlier. 

Concept: Del Taco
Location: Westminster, Calif.
Footprint: 2,400 square feet
Seating: 60
Key features: food art panels; graphic brand messages; warm red, yellow and green palette; low dividers separate dining areas; freshness cooler

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