With turkey continuing to expand its culinary reach among consumers seeking healthful dining alternatives, chefs and foodservice operators are developing new dishes to showcase the versatile protein on their menus.

Burgers, sandwiches and salads are emerging as popular ways of merchandising turkey, both in commercial and noncommercial foodservice locations. However, experts say the taco, another highly portable menu favorite, holds considerable promise for operators looking to further diversify their turkey offerings.

Like burgers, sandwiches and salads, tacos already are immediately recognizable to the majority of the dining public. According to research conducted by Datassential MenuTrends for Jennie-O, tacos represent the most prevalent Mexican entrée featured on menus today, with more than a quarter of all restaurants offering at least one taco dish.

In addition to being familiar to consumers, tacos are able to accommodate a diverse array of ingredients, thereby enabling foodservice operators to easily customize them to fit into their different menu concepts. For example, the Jennie-O study points out that while tacos form a staple of most Mexican restaurants, they also can be found on the menus of more than half of all seafood restaurants and about 40 percent of all U.S. restaurants.

As a result, tacos readily lend themselves to the blending of disparate culinary influences. The most prevalent culinary “mashups” find tacos paired with barbecue, southern U.S. and Asian flavors.

The alliance of turkey and tacos makes sense in today's highly competitive marketplace, experts say, particularly for operators looking to differentiate themselves from the competition through menu innovation and attention to health-centric concerns. “This brings another [lean] protein to the menu,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president-foodservice strategies for WD Partners, a Columbus, Ohio-based design and development firm. “Turkey definitely has a healthy halo.”

In fact, when U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama was promoting the Obama Administration's nutrition-driven changes to government-subsidized school meals in 2012, she was photographed by The New York Times eating a turkey taco while lunching with students at the Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va. — demonstrating the First Lady’s commitment to more healthful dining and the need to combat childhood obesity.

Turkey has a lot of versatility, Lombardi says, “and it doesn't have a strong, dominant flavor profile.”

On the commercial foodservice front, many industry observers took note earlier this year when Lake Forest, Calif.-based Del Taco introduced Turkey Tacos, establishing the company as the first Mexican quick-service chain to offer ground turkey as a protein option. Del Taco’s Turkey Tacos contain lean, seasoned ground turkey that has 33 percent less fat than its seasoned beef, the company says. Each Turkey Taco has only 150 calories. Del Taco also is offering a Turkey CrunchTada Tostada, an extension of the company’s popular CrunchTada product line.

Priced at $1.29 each, the Turkey Tacos are served in a crunchy corn or warm flour tortilla with grated cheddar cheese, lettuce and pico de gallo, prepared daily at each Del Taco location. The Turkey Taco Meal, priced at $5, includes two tacos, chips with fresh pico de gallo salsa and a drink.

John Cappasola, the 547-unit chain's executive vice president and chief brand officer, says, “We’re proud to accommodate the growing number of guests who prefer turkey as a protein option but still want great flavor.”

However, Del Taco is not alone in menuing turkey tacos. Just Turkey, a six-unit fast-casual chain that features turkey products exclusively, has been offering its own version of turkey tacos since the concept was founded in 2008. Earl Husbands, director of operations for the Chicago-based chain, says Just Turkey offers two variations on the turkey taco — one containing ground, seasoned turkey and the other with chunks of chargrilled turkey. Each taco contains 2 oz. of meat, and sells for $2.25 and $2.75, respectively.

Husbands says both variations sell “extremely well. They're among our biggest-selling items. We sell between 50 and 100 daily, depending on the restaurant location.”

Currently operating only in the Chicago area, Just Turkey expects to open its first Atlanta outlet this spring, and has plans to further expand in that area.

While turkey tacos are beginning to make inroads among commercial restaurants, observers agree they also would find wide acceptance among noncommercial companies that operate foodservice outlets in health care venues, colleges and universities, and business and industry locations. “Turkey tacos as a lighter protein should definitely work for noncommercial operations like hospitals, universities or even the military,” Lombardi says. “It's [more nutritious] than some red meats and has a lot of versatility. You can create a lot of flavor profiles around it.”

Meanwhile, as beef prices continue to rise, turkey also is emerging as a more moderately priced substitute for commercial and noncommercial operators looking for ways to keep their food costs in line. “It's an added bonus of using turkey,” Lombardi says.