Taco Bell Cantina Debuts at Third Street; Liquor License in the Works

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Last fall, Golden Gate Bell, LLC, a Pleasanton-based franchisee working in partnership with Yum! Brands, Inc., opened technology-friendly Taco Bell Cantina (TBC) at Third and Townsend streets. TBC is a “concept” eatery, a new model for millennial, urban, diners.

The restaurant offers features the tech crowd wants: digital menu screens, recycling bins, free WiFi, electrical outlets and USB plugs next to almost every seat, two flat screen television monitors tuned to professional sports, smooth steel and wood décor, and communal tables.  Shareable menu items are offered after 5 p.m., including different types of nachos – home style, chili cheese, and vegetarian – chicken taquitos, and chicken tenders with buffalo and avocado ranch dipping sauces.

Some Dogpatch residents are concerned, however, that Yum! Brands, Inc. doesn’t guarantee that its eggs are laid by cage-free chickens and its meat is free from hormones and antibiotics. Yum! Brands was given an “F” grade for industry sourcing practices in Chain Reaction, a 2015 report published by six consumer and environmental organizations, including Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety, and Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Taco Bell announced last month that it’ll transition to offering cage-free eggs at more than 6,000 corporate and franchise-owned restaurants by the end of next year. 

Rob Poetsch, Taco Bell’s director of public affairs and engagement, said the restaurant recently removed all artificial flavors and colors from its food, and replaced them with natural alternatives. The chain intends to eliminate trans fats, and shift to Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil-certified palm. By the end of 2017, Taco Bell will remove additional artificial preservatives and additives where possible. The changes will ultimately affect 95 percent of Taco Bell’s menu, excluding its beverages and co-branded items, such as Doritos taco shells.

According to Randy Rodrigues, chief executive officer of Golden Gate Bell, the Third Street location will ultimately offer beer, including Anchor Steam, Dos Equis, and Firestone Walker, as well as Stack’s red and white wines and sangria.  Hard liquor, which requires a more expensive permit than beer and wine, won’t likely make the menu.  Without a hard alcohol license, Rodrigues said he doesn’t expect to offer the “twisted freeze” combinations of soda or punch and hard liquor available at the only other TBC, located in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, which opened about the same time as the San Francisco outlet.

According to John Carr, California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control information officer, his agency has received 181 protests against TBC receiving a beer and wine license.  Many of those opposed reside in condominium units at 250 and 260 King Street, part of the Beacon Complex, a mixed-use development that sits above shops and offices.

“At the current time, the applicant has the opportunity to reach out to the community and address protest concerns expressed by citizens,” said Carr.  “Some of the concerns are noise levels will increase, there could be more loitering, an increase in public intoxication, litter and trash, and…crime.”   Carr said when a license is protested it can lengthen the application process.

According to Monica Schneider, chief operating officer of Golden Gate Bell, “We’ve been working very closely with local residents to listen to and respond to their needs. Before we opened, our management team and Taco Bell Corporation hosted an open house and met with members of the community to hear their thoughts on how we can make a positive impact to the neighborhood.  By actively listening and engaging with them, we’re able to address what matters most to the community.”

TBC is open 7 a.m. to midnight daily, with the patio closed at 8 or 10 p.m. on San Francisco Giants game nights. Rodrigues is evaluating how the restaurant will operate during baseball season; it underwent a test run when it initially launched since it opened in the last week of the Giants’ season.  “The first Friday we were open was the big AC/DC concert. We had a lot of customers in, many excited about the beer and wine concept,” said Rodrigues.

Taco Bell Cantina is a three-minute walk from AT&T Park. It likely will attract some of the approximately 50,000 fans that attend a Giants’ game.  “The restaurant is very small and has only 28 seats. We have a patio that accommodates 24 more people. We will continue to promote the mobile ordering app and pickup window,” said Schneider. 

“(During baseball season) we will have a dedicated person in the dining room so that we can accommodate more customers,” Schneider said. “We have paper menus and are working on adding a couple of kiosks to enable the customers to order. We have other restaurants across the Bridge and may borrow some people and transport them to San Francisco for work.”

Taco Bell has partnered with a food delivery service DoorDash; this option isn’t yet available for the Third Street location. “We are trying to see if we can add this,” Schneider said. Fans won’t be able to have delivery to the ballpark; AT&T Park doesn’t allow outside food.

Golden Gate Bell operates more than 85 Taco Bell outlets in northern California, though TBC is its only San Francisco location.  “We are in the bottom of a condominium building and are sensitive to the needs of the residents. We have organized it so we have several deliveries a week and no “key drop” delivery,” said Rodrigues.  “The location has no drive-through and there’s no parking. This is very different from a typical Taco Bell location, which is a free-standing building where upwards of 60 to 70 percent of business is done with a drive-through.”

TBC’s prices are higher than other Taco Bell restaurants. “It’s a little bit more expensive to do business in the City,” said Rodrigues.

According to Schneider TBC has already developed a customer base, “with the majority of orders being taken back to the office.”

“There’s a lot of foot traffic, and high-tech firm workers who want to come and sit in the dining room and eat the food on premises,” said Rodrigues.

“We’re seeing many younger people stay in cities,” said Rob Poetsch, Taco Bell’s director of public affairs and engagement. “We want to offer them options. Consumers are always looking for great values. I think now people are seeing the brand in a different way. There are seats at bars and an open kitchen. When you come to the counter, you can see all the fresh produce, pico de gallo, and cheddar cheese. You watch the restaurant staff make your food fresh to order. Food is served very differently, open face in baskets, so you can see the ingredients.”

The restaurant’s design incorporates a lot of brickwork “which is reflective of the stadium” as well as high ceilings, said Poetsch. “The design for this stemmed from a design we’re using in our international restaurants in the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Japan. It is going over very well in San Francisco,” he said.

Taco Bell partnered with Golden Gate Bell because of its experience operating locations throughout the  Bay Area.  Poetsch indicated that Taco Bell will likely open the next TBC outside San Francisco. “Almost three-fourths of our customers pickup food and take it away from the restaurant. Now they have a reason to stay and enjoy food with their friends. People have gone from “food is fuel” to “food is experience.” What we’re doing at Taco Bell Cantina is proving that experiences matter,” he said.