Reservation for two—at Taco Bell HQ

Make a run for the…rezzy? On Cinco de Mayo Thursday this year, you can ditch the chips and ‘ritas for a reservation at the Taco Bell Test Kitchen. Not an actual visit to the Irvine, California-based headquarters, mind you, but a reservation for its first “dining experience”, slated for May 19.

According to a recent press release announcing the opportunity—which “has never been available to the public until now”—“The nation’s leading Mexican-inspired quick service restaurant brand” has partnered with OpenTable, “the world’s leading provider of online restaurant reservations,” to continue …  well … leading.

OpenTable isn’t necessarily treading new ground here, with this tech-tostada fusion.

And for 32 lucky Bell fans (21 years or older), that means a free meal plated by Taco Bell’s menu creators and chefs (travel and accommodations not included) at the company’s culinary lab. (Reservations can be made only via a special URL, which Taco Bell won’t officially announce until May 5. Presumably, reservations will be facilitated by OpenTable, though that hasn’t been made clear). Those who can’t snag a spot at the demo table will have another chance (the company says more events will be added throughout the year). How’s that for a parenthetical fine-print roundup?

While fast-food brands like McDonald’s have struggled to stay afloat in a sea of changing consumer tastes, their marketing and strategy hijinks have gone to 11 (mixed metaphor with cheese, please). See our recent reporting on the Golden Arches’ grasps at relevance here and here.

But Taco Bell’s numbers have consistently stayed north of the border. As Money magazine reported last fall, the chain plans to open 9,000 new restaurants and create 100,000 jobs as part of its effort to reach $15 billion in sales by 2022. OpenTable, however, might not be quite as bold a flavor. The online reservation platform is still recovering from its 2014 M&A hangover, when Priceline Group, Inc. (yes, that of the William Shatner variety) offered to pay $2.6 billion for the company, which at the time was generating somewhere south of $200 million in annual revenue.

It should have raised more eyebrows.

Tara Lachapelle, a Gadfly columnist for Bloomberg covering deals, wrote in 2016 of the Priceline purchase: “It should have raised more eyebrows. Instead, as with most flashy tech deals, excitement took over and even lifted shares of other richly valued online services providers. It was exactly the kind of transaction that helped fuel the overheated M&A environment we still see to this day.” And this fall, Priceline sent another shockwave through the market by writing down the value of OpenTable by more than a third of what it paid for the company in 2014—or $941 million—saying OT had been slower to grow than expected.

And OpenTable isn’t necessarily treading new ground with this tech-tostada fusion, either. In late March, I reported on a similar pairing: chef and restaurateur Michael Volteggio, formerly of Top Chef fame, partnered with OpenTable on a PSA campaign targeting people who ghost on their restaurant reservations. So, when in doubt, partner?

Perhaps: “OpenTable prides itself on helping people make the hottest reservations around and is excited to partner with Taco Bell to give fans this exclusive opportunity,” said Scott Jampol, senior vice president of marketing at OpenTable in a press release. “We’re always looking to offer our diners the most unique dining experiences, and that’s exactly what they’ll find at the Test Kitchen by Taco Bell.”

…if they can get a reservation.

Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.