* Taco Bell plans to reach 500 international stores this year
* Targets 1,000 overseas units
* Plans to reach 40 stores in Thailand by 2022
By Chayut Setboonsarng
BANGKOK, Jan 23 (Reuters) - U.S. fast food chain Taco Bell plans to double its international footprint with Asian markets as the main driver for overseas growth as awareness about Mexican cuisine grows, a senior executive said on Wednesday.
The Mexican-inspired Yum! Brands subsidiary, which has 7,000 restaurants in the United States, will bring its overseas store count to "over 500 units this year ... (with) a goal of getting to a thousand units internationally in the next few years," Liz Williams, President of Taco Bell International, told Reuters in an interview.
Taco Bell retreated from Singapore in 2009. It returned to Japan in 2015 after withdrawing in the 1980s.
"Consumers weren't ready in terms of awareness and the brand wasn't positioned right at the time," she said.
But thanks to a "heightened awareness" of Mexican food, broader palettes and brand exposure by millennials from more travel and technology, at least half of the new units will come from the Asia-Pacific region, she said.
Taco Bell, which sells tacos and burritos, was also adding new flavors and items for local markets citing that its signature sauce was modified for its new store in Thailand, which will open on Thursday.
"We've amped them up significantly," Williams said, because research showed the sauce was not hot enough for Thai palette.
Vinegar notes were also dialled down, which were said to be unpopular with locals, Williams said.
Taco Bell, with franchise partner Thoresen Thai Agencies Pcl , plans 40 stores in Southeast Asia's second largest economy by 2022.
Last year it doubled store count in India to 32 and signed two franchise agreements for 110 new stores across Australia and New Zealand by 2024. (Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier)