This past year had the taste of nostalgia.
From Taco Bell’s revival of Mexican pizza to McDonald’s “adult Happy Meals,” restaurants were promoting the past in 2022.
Chain in West Hollywood is filled with chain-restaurant memorabilia. (Photo courtesy of Chain)
Diners ch ow down on fare inspired by Chili’s Grill & Bar at Chain in West Hollywood. (Photo courtesy of Chain)
A neon sign mimicking Chili’s logo provides an opportunity for a selfie in Chain, a West Hollywood pop-up. (Photo courtesy of Chain)
Diners immerse themselves in fast-casual culture at Chain’s collaboration with Chili’s Grilll & Bar in West Hollywood. (Photo courtesy of Chain)
Taco Bell returned Mexican Pizza to its menu with great fanfare in 2022.(Photo courtesy of Taco Bell)
Dolly Parton indulges in Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza. (Photo courtesy of Taco Bell)
McDonald’s Halloween Pails appealed to nostalgia buffs in 2022. (Photo courtesy of McDonald’s)
Cactus Buddy was one of the collectible figures included in the Cactus Plant Flea Market Box, which was briefly available at McDonald’s in 2022. (Photo courtesy of McDonald’s)
Mexican Pizza was a permanent menu item until Irvine-based Taco Bell withdrew it in 2020. Fans clamored to get it back, inspiring a social media campaign that lasted for months and included influencers such as Doja Cat giving it a shoutout on the main stage of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April. Dolly Parton got in on the act, appearing in “Mexican Pizza: The Musical” on TikTok.
Mexican Pizza returned to the menu in May but was quickly withdrawn when demand caused supplies to run out. After more months of drama, Taco Bell brought it back in September, presumably for good.
McDonald’s “adult Happy Meal” was a collaboration with streetwear company Cactus Plant Flea Market that included a collectible figure in a box that resembled a children’s combo. It rapidly sold out at most McDonald’s locations in a matter of hours or days in October. But McDonald’s followed up by serving regular Happy Meals in retro Halloween Pails.
These products were introduced in the 1970s through the 1990s, meaning that the largest groups of fast food consumers might have been able to experience them as children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those are people age 20-39 and 40-59.
“It’s all about getting people in the door, and what are you going to sell them on? Food quality, food price and I presume memories,” said Christopher Thornberg, director of the UC Riverside School of Business Center for Economic Forecasting and Development. “I don’t think there’s anything terribly unusual here.”
But current events might strengthen the urge to revisit the past. The COVID-19 pandemic and fears that the United States might be moving into a recession are possible factors in the trend, according to Margaret Campbell, associate dean and department chair at UC Riverside’s School of Business.
“The notion that a restaurant would be offering something that allows adults to feel nostalgic about the past and engage in an experience that lets them live that nostalgia in a positive way can provide a social connectedness feeling for people to a happier time, or at least a remembered happy time,” she said in a phone interview.
True to the flavor profile
One enterprise that seeks to provide that experience is a celebrity-backed pop-up in West Hollywood called Chain.
Chain is sort of a cross between a family restaurant and an old-time speakeasy. The concept is by a group of partners that includes B.J. Novak of “The Office” and chef Tim Hollingsworth of the restaurant Otium. It serves interpretations of menu items at chain restaurants, which have included Taco Bell’s Crunchwraps and Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion.
Chain occupies a private event space with an interior production designer Ruth De Jong, whose credits include the series “Yellowstone” and the 2017 revival of “Twin Peaks.” It’s filled with memorabilia to make customers feel as if they have entered the ultimate chain restaurant of their memories, according to co-founder Nicholas Kraft.
It is on a side street in West Hollywood, but it doesn’t publicize the address. It’s only open a few days a month, and its website is bare-bones.
To attend a “drop,” customers supply their cell phone numbers and get a message when a date becomes available. Restaurant Business magazine, a trade publication, called it maybe the toughest restaurant reservation in West Hollywood.
Chain’s first official collaboration was with Dallas-based Chili’s Grill & Bar, which embraced it wholeheartedly, according to Brian Paquette, Chili’s director of culinary.
“One of the founders, B.J. Novak, DM’d us in social and was interested in creating a moment for his followers,” he said in a phone interview. “It was the first time they actually sought a partner directly, and so we were super excited and proud to be part of that partnership.”
Hollingsworth interpreted Chili’s Southwestern Eggrolls, served with a special condiments called Hot Perfecto Sauce and a seasoning called Southwest-Style Desert Dust, as well as its Presidente Margarita. Chili’s didn’t open its recipe book to Chain, Paquette said, but made sure Chain was true to its flavor profiles.
Paquette and a half dozen Chili’s executives and social media people flew in from Texas for the opening. He said it was an enjoyable experience.
“The way it worked, you walked in the front door, you checked in just like you were checking in a restaurant, you got a buzzer, and when the buzzer went off you were to go and get a Happy Meal-ish-type box. And in that box there was an eggroll, an order of throwback fries and Desert-Dusted extra-tender chicken crispers. So, just a cool experience for the guests there. And they did have a bar where margaritas were being served, and some other simple beverages. But in general, that was it. That was the whole menu.”
Chain held four Chili’s drops in November and added three more in December, while were booked in minutes.
That kind of challenge can be good for business, according to Thornberg.
“Exclusivity is its own sales point,” he said. “How many nightclubs keep a line out in front even when the nightclub is half empty?” By definition, you increase the value of it by making it scarcer.”
According to Kraft, Chain provides a few hundred people a night with the communal experience of eating the same dish and making connections around a shared love of fast casual culinary culture.
Of course, there’s the possibility that when weighed against treasured memories and anticipation, the experience may not live up to expectations. But Campbell said the risk is low.
“I think the Happy Meal was $10-$12. I think for a lot of people that’s not necessarily a big risk. It’s just like, oh it’s fun and it’s providing me with this connection to something I remember fondly and I can talk to my friends about it. And that’s all good, without a lot of downside risk.”
The experience might also be recession-proof.
“There’s research that shows that nostalgia actually increases willingness to pay,” she said. “I think from that perspective nostalgia decreases desire for money and increases desire for positive emotion.”
Paquette said a shared nostalgia for chain restaurant food validates people’s memories and gives them permission to enjoy things that society doesn’t always value.
“Giving them permission to return, I think that was really an interesting point of view. And saying it’s still cool. You can still go to Chili’s and do those things you did when you were younger.”
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