When Mike Ciresi goes to work every morning, he doesn’t settle in at a typical office. The dairy specialist isn’t even going to a processing plant or dairy farm. Instead, he arrives at the headquarters of a global food brand with more than 7,000 locations that’s been serving people since 1962 — a little place called Taco Bell.

It might surprise you to learn that Ciresi is actually employed by the nation’s dairy farmers through the dairy checkoff. The senior dairy food specialist for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) uses his background in food science and flavor to work with food developers at Taco Bell and boost dairy use in their menu items.

“My role is to bring dairy expertise to the table for the Taco Bell team,” Ciresi explained on a Hoard’s Dairyman “Herd It Here” podcast.

Most of the time, you can find him in the Taco Bell test kitchen, innovating and collaborating to find new and exciting ways to use dairy that benefit both Taco Bell customers and dairy farmers. One recent success story is the grilled cheese burrito, which features a layer of cheese grilled on to the outside of the burrito’s tortilla in addition to cheese and sour cream inside. It was first launched in July 2020, and the limited time offer was such a hit with customers that it was brought back multiple times. Earlier this year, it became a permanent menu item, which Ciresi said was great news.

The grilled cheese burrito is just one of many examples of why having an on-site scientist working with food partners benefits dairy farmers’ checkoff investment, Ciresi continued. He also helped Taco Bell create the Quesalupa, a chalupa with Pepper Jack cheese stuffed inside the taco shell. “It’s got seven times more cheese than a regular crunchy taco,” he described. That item was also brought back to the menu multiple times and was even featured in a Super Bowl commercial. There was also the toasted Cheddar chalupa, with cheese baked into its bread.

But Ciresi’s role is more than just ideating how to add more cheese to the menu. Each new item must be feasible to make and deliver in the company’s stores, which means it has to be able to be made quickly and taste the same every time. “There’s never a shortage of ideas, but bringing it to life inside of a restaurant is extremely challenging,” Ciresi said. The grilled cheese burrito, for example, required a special type of packaging to maintain the outer cheesy goodness. He explained that the test kitchen has a robust tasting strategy so the team knows a new item will work on a national scale.

Ciresi also helps the Taco Bell team solve larger problems, and DMI leans on the broader dairy industry to find those solutions. When Taco Bell was looking to expand its breakfast operations, for example, they ran into a need for more beverage capabilities, including coffee creamer. So, Ciresi and DMI got in touch with the Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center and were able to formulate a creamer that is shelf stable. That was then shared with Taco Bell’s dairy suppliers. From that creamer, the chain also developed Whip Freeze drinks that have been reintroduced to the menu multiple times.

Taco Bell is just one example of the retail partnerships DMI has that work to use more dairy products in food items consumers around the country enjoy. Scientists like Ciresi help those companies see how dairy can be a valuable part of their businesses, and he said he has seen that shift firsthand at Taco Bell after working with them for nearly a decade.

“It’s pretty clear that Taco Bell viewed dairy, prior to the partnership, as really just a garnish — a sprinkle of cheese on top of a taco,” Ciresi said. “In today’s world, it’s really the hero of the product.”

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2023
July 31, 2023

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