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The History of Taco Bell’s Strangest Menu Item: The Mexican Pizza

Since bringing back the once-staple menu item as an LTO in May, Taco Bell has sold a whopping 20 million pizzas. But why are customers so hungry for this Italian-Mexican hybrid?

From celebrity endorsements to big marketing stunts, today’s QSR world is all about building buzz. And in recent years, one of the most common strategies for getting customers talking has been relaunching nostalgic and beloved menu items from the ‘80s and ‘90s. These menu items, like the coveted McRib, are to the fast food industry what big Hollywood remakes are to entertainment — appeal to generations both young and old by taking existing I.P. and making its return to theaters (or drive-thru windows) an exciting event.

But the latest example of this strategy is a little different than usual. Taco Bell recently brought back its wildly popular Mexican Pizza, which was originally launched in the ‘80s but was only taken off the shelves in 2020. Still, that hasn’t made Taco Bell customers any less excited about the return of the option. 

The fast-food giant brought back the menu item in May as an LTO and has since sold more than 20 million pizzas nationwide — seven times the previous levels. Loyalty members were given access two days before full release, and in that two-day window, loyalty registrations grew 15 times over. Taco Bell’s U.S. same-store sales lifted 8% in Q2 despite inflation. The brand even announced it would be releasing a Mexican Pizza musical featuring Doja Cat and Dolly Parton exclusively on TikTok, although it has postponed the idea for the time being.

“The benefit of things like the Mexican Pizza is the connection it has with consumers, the love they have for the product and the halo it provides to the brand,” Yum! Brands CEO David Gibbs said during the company’s Q2 earnings call. “It’s just as much about the buzz that that creates and the relevance it creates for our brand as it is about the discrete amount of sales... And I think that is really our formula. We have got to be the most relevant brands in the industry and connecting with consumers the way Taco Bell has done in Q2. And you can see the results when that happens.”

So, why do customers have such fond associations with Mexican Pizza? How did we get here?

The original concept of the "Mexican-style pizza" — a layer of ground beef and beans spread between two flat, flour tortilla shells, topped with cheese and pizza sauce — was born in 1984. Taco Bell introduced the new product under the name "Mexican Pizza" in several test markets in 1984 and early 1985. It was a hit, and Taco Bell decided to roll out its Mexican Pizza nationwide.

After conducting consumer research in February 1985, Taco Bell found the term "Mexican Pizza" may have been turning some customers off because of its potential “spiciness.” So, Taco Bell decided to change the name from "Mexican Pizza" to "Pizzazz Pizza" (not confusing at all, right?). Pizzazz was meant to better encapsulate the product’s "zest, vim and liveliness," while also being a play on pizza. Unfortunately for Taco Bell, they weren’t the first ones to come up with this brilliant wordplay. The chain was sued by another pizza brand called Pizzazz Pizza, which resulted in the name reverting to what we see today: “Mexican Pizza.”

From there, it was pretty much smooth sailing for the Mexican Pizza. The item remained a staple on the Taco Bell menu through 35 years of logo changes, recipe revamps and marketing campaigns. Interestingly, it was a particularly popular option for Taco Bell’s South Asian American customers.

And then, seemingly overnight, everything changed. As if 2020 couldn’t have been any worse, in September of that year, Taco Bell made the decision to discontinue the item all together as part of a streamlined menu strategy that, in part, was meant to cut down on waste. The press release explains that in Taco Bell's U.S. locations alone, the packaging used for the Mexican Pizza produced over seven million pounds of paperboard material per year. 

Customers weren’t having it, and they made their opinion heard — there was even a petition that racked up nearly 200,000 supporters. Del Taco took advantage of the gap in the marketplace in April 2021 with the Crunchtada, but it didn’t quite hit at the same level. 

That brings us to May 2022, when Taco Bell announced that the Mexican Pizza would return for a limited time. Pretty quickly, it was clear that the chain had underestimated the fervor surrounding the Mexican Pizza, and the item was discontinued once again due to a lack of supply. Luckily, it looks like Taco Bell has learned its lesson — it was recently announced that the Mexican Pizza would return this fall as a permanent menu item. Mexican Pizza fans everywhere could rest easy knowing that the battle was won.

For other franchisors, the Mexican Pizza saga may present a valuable lesson: that beloved menu items don’t need to be gone for 20 years to drum up demand. Although Burger King likely isn’t going to discontinue the Whopper for a few months just to create buzz around its return, the trend does provide an interesting insight into how powerful a scarcity marketing strategy can be for today’s customers, especially when it's centered around an item with as much history as the Mexican Pizza.