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The chain will also add new items to its premium fresh-Mex Cantina Bell menu later this year. That menu, created with celebrity chef Lorena Garcia, now accounts for about 4 percent of sales, Niccol said.

And Taco Bell is promising more aggressive growth. The chain opened about 115 units in 2013 and plans to double that in 2014, with mostly franchised openings.

The chain aims to add about 2,000 more restaurants over the next five to seven years, focusing on rural areas and urban sites, said Niccol. Later this year, the chain will introduce a new in-line design with no drive thru and a smaller footprint for city locations.

A key aspect of growth, however, will be winning all dayparts, Niccol said.

Hash browns are on Taco Bell's breakfast menu

“We’re famous for late night. We’re becoming famous for Happier Hour, and the good news is people still love us for lunch and dinner,” he said. “But one place our customers keep asking us, ‘Why aren’t you there?’ is breakfast.”

Breakfast is seen as a huge growth opportunity for the restaurant industry overall, particularly for quick service, as a growing number of Americans dine out for their first meal.

The morning daypart is estimated to account for about $45 billion to $50 billion in annual foodservice sales, about 10 percent of the industry overall, according to market research firm Technomic Inc. Taco Bell, however, with 5,800 U.S. locations, is going up against the Goliath of McDonald’s, with more than 14,000 domestic units.

The Golden Arches rules at breakfast by far, with an estimated $9 billion in annual sales during morning hours, according to Technomic. In a recent survey, 62 percent of consumers said they visit McDonald’s for breakfast at least once every 90 days. Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts ranked a distant second, each with 29 percent of such visits, respectively.

Still, Niccol argued that Taco Bell will bring something new to the quick-service breakfast landscape: innovation.

“The best thing I’ve seen is an egg white, as far as breakfast innovation goes,” he said, referring to McDonald’s Egg White Delight McMuffin, introduced last year. “I think we can do for breakfast what we did for the crunchy taco.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout