TAMPA — The breakfast wars are heating up. On Thursday, Taco Bell debuted its first morning menu with items such as the much ballyhooed Waffle Taco and the A.M. Crunchwrap, all aimed at taking a bite out of McDonald's morning profits.
And Taco Bell is not alone.
Dunkin' Donuts recently launched a more substantial — and savory — array of breakfast items, and Subway and Starbucks have chewed up some of Mickey D's lead with their own options. These new morning additions reflect the fact that breakfast is the only growth day segment in recent months, with flagging soda sales and "healthy-alternative" newcomers like Chipotle and Panera cutting into fast food giants' lunch and dinner profits.
California-based Taco Bell has experimented with alternative noshing schedules (remember the "Fourth Meal" campaign?), but the new breakfast menu represents its largest expansion yet. It comes with challenges: Taco Bell has never served coffee, so nearly 6,000 U.S. locations had to be outfitted with coffeemakers.
It's too early to know whether this gamble will pay off, but a Thursday morning drive-through of the Taco Bell location at 4647 W Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa showed that McDonald's should be fretting. Plus, if social media is any indication, the launch was a huge success with Taco Bell being among the most tweeted about topics of the day.
The winner on the menu was the A.M. Crunchwrap, a monster package of scrambled eggs, a hash brown, cheese and bacon (also offered with sausage or steak) in a crusty-edged warm flour tortilla. With a little bit of spicy heat and what tasted liked refried beans, it's distinctive, playing to Taco Bell's strengths and offered with a special a.m.-appropriate hot sauce packet (no word on whether it will clean a penny as swiftly as the Bell's regular hot sauce). And at $2.59, this item was an eats-like-a-meal steal.
The much-heralded Waffle Taco ($1.99; a waffle wrapped around a sausage patty or bacon, with scrambled eggs and cheese, served with a side of syrup) read like a McGriddle, the waffle portion a bit rubbery in texture but the egg filling fluffy and the cheese molten — a good example of Taco Bell's focus on all-in-one portability and manageable with one hand. The A.M. Taco was underwhelming: a flat flour tortilla folded over cheese and sausage, thin enough to slide in an envelope and require only one stamp (the Postal Service might frown on the grease). Still, for $1, not a bad option.
After the Crunchwrap, the biggest winner was a passel of Cinnabon Delights (4 for $1.69), warm, bite-sized doughnut-hole pastries filled with Cinnabon's signature frosting goo and covered with an appealingly grainy cinnamon sugar.
The entire breakfast menu features 14 items that cost from $1 to $2.49, which is less expensive or comparable to the competition. Most breakfast sandwiches at McDonald's run $2.79 to $3.39; at Subway it's $2.50 to $2.75 for small sandwiches; and at Starbucks prices range from $2.95 to $4.45. Taco Bell's breakfast service starts at 7 a.m. or earlier and runs through 11 a.m. That's a half an hour later than McDonald's, which is currently considering expanding breakfast hours or even offering breakfast all day.
For now McDonald's Egg McMuffin is the reigning fast-food king in the morning, but legions of breakfast fans are likely to make a run for the border.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.