The Truth About Taco Bell's Dollar Menu

McDonald's might have the most famous dollar menu in fast food, but it's hardly the dollar menu that it once was. Today, if fast food fans really want a dollar menu that might include as many as 21 items for just $1, there's really only one place to go — Taco Bell. The Mexican fast food giant seems to live up to its "Live Más" motto in regards to its value menu and is one of the last fast fast food chains out there trying its best to maintain the $1 aspect of the dollar menu.

There's no telling how long its menu will include items for just $1, but the brand is constantly tweaking its value menu to give customers the most bang for their buck. Ever since Taco Bell first debuted its value menu, competitors such as McDonald's have been trying to strategize their counterattack and that competition continues today.

From its early beginnings to its ever-evolving menu lineups and menu hacks, here's everything you ever wanted to know about one of the best value menus in fast food.

Taco Bell's dollar menu dates back to 1989

Taco Bell's dollar menu has certainly evolved from its humble beginnings and while the modern-day version may still offer a bounty of Mexican-inspired fast food at low prices, its early menu was even cheaper.

Way back in the late 1980s, Taco Bell jumped on the value menu train with a menu that would make today's dollar menu look expensive. Customers could get a menu item for as little as 59 cents. It was fairly limited, but one of the dollar menu's first commercials touted that fans could get a taco for 59 cents, Supreme taco for 79 cents, and Big Beef taco for 99 cents. Hence, the brand's "59, 79, 99 cents each" commercial jingle.

According to a 1990, New York Times article, the low-priced menu was the brand's strategy to create the perception that they had the cheapest food in fast food.

"If you look around in the hospitality industry you see a lack of differentiation and a lot of customer confusion — 99 cents for this, 59 cents for that," industry consultant Simon Crawford-Welch, said at the time. "But with Taco Bell, I know what I get."

Taco Bell's strategy worked, too, and soon after it rolled out its value menu, it became the best-performing fast food chain in the country.

Taco Bell's dollar menu was part of a rebranding strategy

Taco Bell may now be the favorite Mexican restaurant of Americans, but for a long time, it was a struggling company. What really helped turn all of that around was a rebranding strategy in which the value menu played a significant part.

When Pepsico bought Taco Bell in 1978, a large portion of the country was quite hesitant to eat Mexican food (via The New York Times). The perception was that it was either too spicy or just too outside the norm from normal American fast food. Taco Bell's lack of a drive-thru and decor with a guy in a sombrero napping also didn't help matters.

John E. Martin, who took over Taco Bell operations in 1983, wanted to convince fast food fans that tacos were just as tasty as burgers. The solution was to make prices so low that even the most skeptical fast food customer wouldn't be able to resist. At the time, a single taco was 79 cents, but that was soon dropped to 39 cents. "Our transactions went through the roof, but profitability went through the floor," Martin said.

The next step was to raise the taco price to 49 cents and then 59 cents with other items at 79 and 99 cents. The idea was to create a value menu that would keep customers regularly coming back. The low-priced menu proved highly effective and by 1990, operating profits had increased by 26 percent.

Taco Bell's dollar menu actually raised the price of some items

When items officially find their way onto a fast food dollar menu they're supposed to be a better deal than previously, right? That's the idea at least. Unfortunately, that may not technically always be the case.

When Taco Bell officially started calling their value menu the Dollar Cravings Menu in 2014, customers were treated to 11 items for the flat price of $1. While this might have still been cheaper than the $2 items showing up on McDonald's and Wendy's dollar menus, it actually raised the price of some Taco Bell items (via Money).

Before finding their way to the Dollar Cravings Menu, popular favorites like Cinnamon Twists, the Cheese Roll-up, and Crispy Potato Soft Taco were priced at 99 cents. When they went to the new menu they were a penny more expensive. Obviously, a penny increase in price isn't much and nobody made a fuss about it, but technically, the move to the dollar menu for those three items didn't work in favor of the customer.

Taco Bell's dollar menu went through a major change in 2018

In December 2018, Taco Bell's Dollar Cravings Menu went through a slight name change, but rather significant structural change. Taco Bell's parent company Yum Brands! decided to drop the "dollar" in front of the menu name and rebrand it the Value Cravings Menu (via Business Insider).

At first glance, the change might not seem like much, but it marked a change in the menu's items and soon customers found $5 items mixed in with those $1 tacos. "While [the dollar menu] was a huge focus in 2018, and a promise we exceeded, in 2019 we're really focusing on the revamped Value Cravings Menu and what that means for fans," Taco Bell spokesperson told Business Insider

The key point in that statement is "competitors value offerings." Like many things in fast food, McDonald's often leads industry changes — for better or worse — and this time was no different.

A year earlier, McDonald's had launched its new $1 $2 $3 Dollar Menu and Taco Bell sought to capitalize by reminding customers of its dollar menu where the food's price actually reflected the menu's name (via Business Insider).

McDonald's new menu wasn't a huge hit, but at the same time, the shift was also the writing on the wall for fast food. Just like McDonald's, Burger King, and other fast food chains, Taco Bell began incorporating more expensive items into its dollar menu.

Taco Bell's dollar menu offers one of the cheapest breakfasts in fast food

Breakfast is big business for fast food chains and there's a lot of competition out there when it comes to pulling in customers for the first meal of the day. Taco Bell revived its breakfast in 2014 and continues to be one of the cheapest choices in the fast food breakfast wars.

The breakfast offerings on fast food menus tend to be a little cheaper than the lunch and dinner items, and as of May 2020, per Taco Bell's website, five breakfast items are just $1.

According to QSR Magazine, the newest breakfast addition to its Value Cravings Menu is the Cheesy Toasted Breakfast Burrito that was launched in 2020 — just as Wendy's was relaunching their breakfast menu. "We continue to have the dollar menu on breakfast," Taco Bell vice president of marketing, Melissa Friebe, told Business Insider. "Our competitors are having a hard time just having that for the rest of the menu, let alone for breakfast."

According to Fast Food Menu Prices, not a single breakfast item on McDonald's McValue breakfast menu is under a buck. Meanwhile, Burger King only offers three breakfast items for a dollar or less and Wendy's has zero (via Nation's Restaurant News).

Business is booming at Taco Bell because of the dollar menu

Ever since Taco Bell launched its version of a dollar menu in 1989, the company has been pulling in customers with its cheap food. The very first year it launched, customer transactions jumped by 35 percent (via The New York Times).

Sure, Taco Bell has had to move around a few pieces over the decades, but the dollar menu continues to be a real asset to the brand. Not long after McDonald's killed off their Dollar Menu in 2013, Taco Bell swooped in to steal their business with the $1 Double Stacked Taco (via Business Insider). That would prove to be a profitable move for Taco Bell.

In 2019, QSR Magazine reported that the brand's commitment to keeping its value menu loaded with $1 items has helped Taco Bell achieve seven continuous years of profit growth. That's quite the feat when so many fast food chains are struggling.

A big part of how Taco Bell managed to do this was by stacking its dollar menu in 2018 with 20 $1 items, scaling that back in 2019 with the addition of $5 combos, and then adding on value menu versions of items like the Double Chalupa.

When it comes to making money with a dollar menu, Taco Bell is in it for the long game and the strategy is working.

Some Taco Bells don't have a value menu

As loaded as the Taco Bell dollar menu is with cheap eats, some Taco Bells have no dollar menu at all. While this might seem like a fast food fan's worst nightmare, it is indeed a reality at some Taco Bell locations.

For example, students at the University of Houston have a Taco Bell in their student center food court, but it doesn't offer any sort of value menu (via The Daily Cougar). "I wish they would have stuff like the Baja Blast and the value menu, so students who are looking for that would have a place on campus to eat it," complained one student. Sadly, the world of fast food isn't always fair.

Fast food locations on college campuses often have smaller menus than stand-alone restaurants. And while a Taco Bell representative didn't comment on the story, a marketing manager for the university's dining services said the menu was mandated by Taco Bell and the addition of the value menu wasn't likely. 

According to social media, some Taco Bells inside airports may also not be participating in value menus. If there's a lesson to be gleaned from this information, it's that we should all be a little more grateful for the items that are on the Taco Bell dollar menu. It could always be worse... there could be no dollar menu at all.

Taco Bell is constantly adding new items to the dollar menu

It's not often that the addition of a food item to a restaurant's value menu sends the internet into a frenzy, but 21 items? That's a different story. Taco Bell made headlines in late 2019 when they announced that 2020 would see the value menu stacked up with 21 items at just $1 each (via Delish). For a limited time, of course.

Senior vice president Melissa Friebe said, "It's more important than ever before that we give fans the craveable food they not only want but can afford..." Taco Bell's dollar menu is constantly changing which means that finding your favorite item on it could just be a matter of hitting up the Bell at the right time. For example, when the menu went through an overhaul in 2018, it was the Chicken Enchilada Burrito and Three Cheese Nacho Burrito that were the new stars of the menu (via Food & Wine). In March 2020, the new items added to the menu were the Chipotle Chicken Grande Burrito and the Loaded Taco Grande Burrito.

Okay, so maybe the two chicken burritos were identical except for their sauces (one had red sauce and the other chipotle) but still, at least Taco Bell is trying to keep its value menu constantly fresh.

Plant-based items could find their way to Taco Bell's dollar menu

Alright, so you won't find any Taco Bell items made with Impossible, Beyond Meat or some other plant-based meat substitute on the dollar menu just yet, but it could happen. Hear us out...

In June 2019, Delish reported that Taco Bell was testing out a vegetarian menu with items like a Vegetarian Crunchwrap Supreme. At the time, president of North American operations, Julie Felss Masino, said they had met with both Beyond and Impossible, but weren't committing to plant-based meats just yet.

By late 2019, Fox Business was reporting how Taco Bell's new 21 item dollar menu for 2020 was part of a counterattack on the plant-based items from fast food competitors. Cut to February 2020, and Taco Bell changed its tune on plant-based proteins.

In an interview with Bloomberg, CEO Mark King said that plant-based meat substitutes will probably find their way to the menu sometime in the following year (via Fox Business). "We definitely see that plant-based protein has a place on the menu," King said.

An Impossible taco probably won't go directly to the value menu at Taco Bell. That said, considering the large number of burritos and tacos that do find their way to the dollar menu, some form of plant-based protein eventually landing on it seems likely.

The Taco Bell dollar menu is very hackable

Taco Bell's value menu is already one of the strongest in the fast food value menu game, but the menu's hackability makes it even more enticing. Now as for any possible up-charges, well, we can't guarantee that's not going to happen but a chicken burrito with a cheese roll-up inside is probably worth the extra few cents you might see on your receipt.

One person on Reddit suggested getting the beefy Fritos burrito and adding potatoes to it before taking things to the extreme and wrapping it in a mini chicken quesadilla. Another Redditor said that any value menu item with double beef you can sub for steak and you'll often get double the steak.

Rather than asking for potatoes as a rice substitute, order plain potatoes for 60 cents instead. "It's the same price but you get enough to add potatoes to two items," a Taco Bell menu hacker said.

One menu hack that showed up on both Reddit and Twitter, Taco Bell might want to actually add to its regular menu. Essentially, you order two mini chicken quesadillas, along with a spicy tostada. Break the tostada in half and put each piece into the quesadillas for a sort of spicy quesatoda. That DIY hack won't even get you an up-charge.

Basically, when it comes to hacking Taco Bell's dollar menu the only limit is how far you can stretch the boundaries of your imagination... and tortillas.

Some Taco Bell dollar menu items are available for only a limited time

Sure, items like Cinnamon Twists are always on Taco Bell's value menu, but other items that find their way to the menu are very much there for a limited time only.

One of these items is the popular Double Stacked Taco. It's actually a trio of Double Stacked Tacos that first made their way to the value menu in 2016, before they were back on the regular menu at a higher price. One fan said that the tacos were "one of the best fast food items" they'd ever had before lamenting about how their "beloved Double Stacks" were gone. Other people on Reddit voiced similar frustrations and reported that their Taco Bell had raised the price of the tacos to $1.99.

Call it cruel, but Taco Bell knows what it's doing when it pulls a popular item from the dollar menu. In December of 2019, multiple outlets reported on the return of all three Double Stacked Tacos to the value menu with their throwback $1 price (via Nation's Restaurant News). While the return of the tacos was good news for fans of Taco Bell, there was one disappointing caveat — it was a limited time offering. 

As of May 2020, those Double Stacked Tacos are nowhere to be found on Taco Bell's value menu. Could Double Stacked Tacos become Taco Bell's version of the seasonal McRib?

At one time, nothing on Taco Bell's menu was over a dollar

It might seem like a dollar doesn't go as far these days as it used to, but maybe part of that is just our perception. Case in point, let's take a look at Taco Bell's menu from the past.

In 2016, Huffington Post dug up an old photo of Taco Bell's menu from way back in 1965. The menu was pretty ho-hum compared to the restaurant's innovative menu of the 21st-century and only included six items: frijoles, tostados, a chili burger, two kinds of burritos, and tacos. Yeah, that was it.

The real standout, aside from the lackluster menu, is that nothing on the menu was more than 19 cents! At a glance that seems like a pretty unbeatable price that puts the Taco Bell dollar menu of today to shame. Not so fast — we've got to take into account the rate of inflation. Surely, 19 cents in 1965 is still better than a buck today, right? 

Well, according to an inflation calculator, 19 cents in 1965 is equal to $1.56 in 2020. That's right, Taco Bell fans, the good old days weren't so great and you're actually getting a better deal — and certainly more variety — with today's Taco Bell value menu than you would have 55 years ago.