Remember when “the 1 percent” was a pejorative? It feels like years ago.
That’s because it was. In late 2011, when Occupy Wall Street was in full flower, calling somebody out as a member of the 1 percent was not a compliment. Three years later, the Occupy movement has withered and the foul stench that wafted from the 1 percent has undergone a curious transmutation: It smells just like money.
It has occurred to certain marketing types that "1 percent" is just a synonym for "fabulously well-to-do," and who doesn’t want to be that? We Americans eternally aspire, and where there’s hope, there’s a buck to be made. Soon you’ll be able to eat your way out of the 99 percent and into the rarefied single-digit percentile thanks to that well-known totem of the upwardly mobile, Taco Bell. The chain’s parent company, Yum! Brands, recently announced the impending launch of a new line of restaurants, the U.S. Taco Co. and Urban Taproom.
I give the company credit for thinking outside the bun. Their segmentation studies revealed that a wide swath of the population—dare I say class?—will never enter a quick-service restaurant, except perhaps under extreme duress. Taco Bell has lost these customers to Chipotle, or perhaps simply to time and age and not being stoned. They tried appealing to them in their existing stores with the Cantina Bell menu, and the reaction appears to have been a great national yawn. (CHOW’s John Birdsall wrote about his brush with Cantina Bell greatness a couple of years ago.)
The (deep breath) U.S. Taco Co. and Urban Taproom is Yum!’s attempt to reach those customers with a more upscale, “fast-casual” menu, populated with “premium” tacos, milk shakes, and, we’re promised, craft beer and wine.
Here’s how you know a restaurant concept is upscale: when it has long descriptions. In its announcement, Yum! teased a few menu items, including the Brotherly Love, a cheeseteak-cum-taco with “carne asada steak, grilled peppers and onions, roasted poblano queso and cotija cheese … and fresh cilantro in a flour tortilla.” Look at all those words!
Another adjective-loaded item might be a more telling road sign for the chain's direction. It has “fresh lobster in garlic butter with red cabbage slaw and pico de gallo on crispy fry bread,” and is called the One Percenter.
One could quibble with this name on fact-based grounds (I haven’t noticed a lot of crispy fry bread on Rich Kids of Instagram). But that would be missing the point. Marketing isn’t about facts; it’s about promise. That lobster in garlic butter won’t just taste rich, it might just make you that way.
If Birdsall’s experience with the Cantina Bell menu is any guide, Yum! won’t exert the same effort in preparing this food that it takes in naming it. That’s not to say that the company’s foray into the upscale fast-casual market will fail on commercial grounds. They promise to make 1 percenters of us all, which has long been a winning strategy. For a moment in 2011 and 2012, it was fashionable in wider circles than usual to dislike the wealthiest, but with the One Percenter we’re back to the status quo. It’s no longer “Eat the rich.” Now it’s “Eat like the rich.”
Brock Winstead lives, eats, and writes in Oakland, California. He was trained as an urban planner, worked in politics for a while, and then gave it all up for a glamorous life of writing on his blog, here at CHOW, and elsewhere.