Talk to the folks at Taco Bell and you realize that this isn’t just a Mexican quick-service restaurant (QSR) business. Instead, this Irvine, Calif., company (a subsidiary of Yum! Brands) angles to be a culturally-centric lifestyle brand with the credo: “Live Mas.” Put into words, it’s a call to live a life worth sharing and try new experiences.

Taco Bell believes its loyal consumers crave new eating experiences—although they must be expressed with Taco Bell’s unique flair. So in 2014, researchers found themselves looking for ways to convert a big trend into a new taste. At the time, they noticed there were approximately 1.8 billion servings of crispy chicken served annually at QSRs.

Steven Gomez, a Taco Bell product development leader, told Prepared Foods’ New Products Conference attendees the Naked Chicken Chalupa idea started out with a seemingly random conversation with a co-worker. A colleague asked Gomez, “What if we made a [taco] shell out of chicken Milanese?” Gomez said he was taken aback by the “crazy” idea but responded: “Let me give it a think” and he took the idea to the Taco Bell test kitchen to prototype.

Taco Bell approached Tyson Foods with the concept for the Naked Chicken Chalupa in late 2014. Fundamentally, the idea is breaded chicken folded and fried into a “shell” in the back of Taco Bell restaurants. Although the product was certainly unique (something only found at a Taco Bell), it would prove challenging to execute. 

The product was not to have a spongy, nugget-like texture. Even so, officials agreed it must be pliable and not break as it fit into Taco Bell’s chalupa taco mold. Ultimately, through development of proprietary processes and existing technology, Tyson says it was able to produce an all-white meat chicken piece that delivered on the functional need for pliability.

Taco Bell and Tyson teams collaborated cross-functionally during the next two years just to optimize production, packaging, product positioning and communication. It all led up to Taco Bell’s limited-time offer launch of the Naked Chicken Chalupa in late January 2017. Available from January through early March, the product received great reviews from Taco Bell fans and the foodservice media. In all, more than 31 million shells were sold from January 29-March 4. 

“To deliver for a consumer that craves unique experiences, it takes a novel idea that is supported by a highly collaborative team of passionate creators,” says Mandie Beck, CCS, a Tyson R&D project leader for foodservice national accounts. “As strong partners, Taco Bell and Tyson champion these characteristics and will continue developing fun, distinctive, ‘must-share’ products to allow consumers to ‘Live Mas.’”