I like to think of America’s fast-food chains as a bunch of dysfunctional family members. McDonald’s is the golden boy, the kid who’s good at everything and won’t shut up about it. Burger King is the jealous younger brother. KFC is perhaps the cousin who still wears cargo shorts. And then, there’s Taco Bell: fast food’s problem child.
The purveyor of fluorescent nacho cheese is just plain weird. I’m not simply talking about those tacos with Doritos for shells. This is a brand that reportedly spent $500 million on an ad campaign featuring Gidget, a talking chihuahua with the catchphrase “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” A completely real tagline on Taco Bell’s webpage for its fountain drinks reads: “Taco Bell Cups, Matryoshka Dolls, and the Multiplicity of Human Existence.” (It only gets weirder from there.)
Alas, Taco Bell is at it again. This month, the brand announced the “Taco Lover’s Pass,” which lets you get exactly one taco every single day for 30 days with a subscription that costs $5 to $10, depending on the store. Right now, Taco Bell is trial-running the service in 17 locations in Tucson, Arizona, and there are lots of caveats: The only way to become a certified Taco Lover is by buying the pass through the Taco Bell app; no, sorry, the Chalupa Supreme is not part of the deal. A company spokesperson told me that “there’s no guarantee” the subscription service will become available nationwide, “but when it comes to Taco Bell innovation, we never say never.”
Although “Netflix for tacos” should absolutely not be a phrase we all have to endure in the future, I will very reluctantly acknowledge that this does seem like a good deal. Some qualifying tacos at the chain sell for $1.99, so if you buy the $5 pass and go in just three days out of 30, you can more than break even. Taco Bell’s most ardent fans are going bonkers over subscription tacos. “I think so far this might be one of the few perks I’ve gotten for living in AZ lol,” reads one comment on r/livingmas, the Reddit forum for discussing Taco Bell. But even a good deal has its downsides. “That’s brilliant marketing. No one with that subscription could possibly live for 30 days,” joked the comedian Larry the Cable Guy on Twitter. (Hey, when he’s right, he’s right.)
For once, what Taco Bell is doing here maybe isn’t that weird. The brand is far from the first restaurant to make a foray into the subscription economy full of plus signs slapped onto names. Last year, the fast-casual chain Panera introduced “MyPanera+,” which gets you unlimited coffee and tea for $9 a month. Panera devotees have gone wild for it: In a matter of months, some 750,000 people had reportedly subscribed. (A Panera spokesperson told me subscriptions have continued to grow this year, but would not specify numbers.) Burger King, Dunkin’, Pret a Manger, and BJ’s all have dabbled in subscriptions.
Before Taco Bell came along, all those subscriptions centered on coffee (or in BJ’s case, beer). But some white-tablecloth restaurants have gotten into the subscription game as well. When the pandemic prohibited sit-down dining last year and sent much of the industry’s workforce onto the unemployment rolls, places such as Republic, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Gado Gado, in Portland, Oregon, turned to subscriptions as an easy way for cash-flush regulars to help shore up their finances.
Lots of people seem to earnestly love the idea. One poll from last September found that a majority of New Yorker City residents would consider forking up for a restaurant subscription—at least in the context of the pandemic, to support their favorite places. But a Taco Bell subscription does raise the question: How far are we going with this? Everything is a subscription now. You can, of course, subscribe to Netflix and Amazon—and this magazine. But you can also subscribe to phone cases and puzzles and furniture and seeds and earrings and sex toys. The convenience is nice, but the trend is also in many ways a product of thin bank accounts and too little free time. As my colleague Amanda Mull has written of the subscription era, “Generational precarity is hardly an exciting lifestyle.”
Taco Bell’s spokesperson didn’t answer the question of why the chain is trying this out. Lidija Polutnik, an economist at Babson College who has researched the rise of subscriptions, told me that the company could have two big motivations behind its pivot to subscriptions. For one, Americans have lots and lots of fast-food choices, so a subscription could be an ideal way for the brand to get customers in the door, where they’ll want to wash down their single taco with a drink and maybe some nachos. “I have a hard time thinking that somebody would come in 30 days in a month and get a taco only,” Polutnik told me. And more fundamentally, Polutnik said, these dirt-cheap subscriptions let Taco Bell track lots of valuable data about what exactly its customers want, when, and how often.
Restaurant subscriptions are not so sure a bet that every single restaurant you love (or hate) is destined to soon have one. Both Burger King and Dunkin’ discontinued their coffee subscriptions not long after they launched. But the explosion in subscription services is a sign of a grander inevitability. With subscription tacos, Taco Bell is taking a step from being a weirdo restaurant chain toward being a weirdo tech company. The same is true of its competitors—and, really, all of corporate America. Taco Bell is copying the Netflix playbook because the way to survive in business is to copy the trends and practices of Silicon Valley. Certainly, this can make our lives easier. (Lord knows the difficulty of buying tacos on a non-subscription basis.) But the end point of tech taking over every facet of consumer life is that the same nuisances of auto-renewals, buggy apps, data tracking, and so many other issues are no longer simply tech-industry problems. They are everything problems. Someone please let me know when we get Chipotle+.