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Taco Bell will test its alcohol-serving Cantina locations in suburbs

A worker serves sangria at a Taco Bell Cantina restaurant in Chicago, Illinois.

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Taco Bell will convert three of its traditional restaurants into Cantinas this year as part of a test to see if suburban consumers enjoy the more upscale locations as much as urbanites.

The Yum Brands chain opened its first Cantina in 2015 as a way to appeal to customers who were spending their money on food from fast-casual chains and to build a footprint in urban areas with more expensive real estate. Now, the locations are a key building block in Taco Bell’s goal to become a $20 billion brand, and the chain is continuing to toy with the concept.

Self-order kiosks and trendy decor greet customers who walk through a Cantina’s doors. The seating is meant to encourage them to stick around longer, and locations feature an open kitchen. And they even serve alcohol.

The company has opened more than 30 Cantinas in the United States. Its Las Vegas Cantina, which also serves as a wedding chapel for devoted fans, is the chain’s busiest location in the world. Taco Bell plans to open a Cantina in Times Square by this fall.

Cantinas have also been known for using self-order kiosks and other digital elements, which have inspired Taco Bell to install these devices in all new restaurants.

New Cantinas represent the chance for the chain to continue expanding the consumer experience. A suburban Cantina, for example, could broadcast big sports games. By the end of the third quarter, Taco Bell customers will be able to play video games at the Cantina in San Ramone, California.

“While we will always be great for menu innovation, we are trying to apply the same creativity to the dining experience,” President and Global Chief Operating Officer Mike Grams said in an interview.

But Taco Bell isn’t completely removing its focus from the menu. Grams also suggested that a Cantina could serve an entirely plant-based menu. The Mexican-inspired chain has long been known as vegetarian friendly, a reputation it has leaned into in recent months as rivals add meatless alternatives to their tacos and burritos. Taco Bell’s CEO Mark King told Bloomberg in late February it would follow suit within a year. 

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