From talking Chihuahuas to 59-cent tacos, the chain that brought Americanized Mexican food to the masses has always been an attention grabber. But even if you know your Chalupas from your Gorditas, there are still a few things you probably don’t know about Taco Bell.
1. IT’S NAMED AFTER THE FOUNDER.
That would be Glen Bell, a California entrepreneur who owned a miniature golf course and a hot dog stand, among other ventures, before hitting it big with tacos. While working at Bell’s Drive-In in San Bernardino—the same town as the first McDonald’s, incidentally—he noticed long lines at the Mexican restaurant across the street. After endearing himself to the owners, Bell got them to show him how to make hard-shell tacos, which were a novelty at the time. Bell soon opened up his own Mexican restaurant, Taco Tia, which grew to three locations before he sold to his business partner. In 1962, he opened the first Taco Bell on Firestone Boulevard in Downey, California.
2. THE TACOS WERE ORIGINALLY 19 CENTS.
And apparently customers pronounced them “Tay-Kohs” at first. Other menu items included tostadas, burritos and chiliburgers.
3. THE FIRST LOCATION FEATURED FIRE PITS AND MARIACHI BANDS.
True to the times and to its California roots, Taco Bell numero uno was basically a hangout spot. The 400-square foot, mission-style building had no indoor seating—just a kitchen and an ordering window. Outside, customers occupied a few patio chairs and tables, or stood around one of the fire pits noshing on tacos. The restaurant was fun, laid back, and carried not even a whiff of the multimillion-dollar future ahead of it.
4. THE FIRST FRANCHISEE WAS A FORMER L.A. POLICE OFFICER NAMED KERMIT.
Within two years, Taco Bell had expanded to eight locations. That’s when Bell decided to take what was a fairly novel step at the time and begin selling to franchisees who were also willing to bet on the success of Mexican-American cuisine. First up: Kermit Becky, a former LAPD officer who opened a Taco Bell in Torrance.
5. THE COMPANY SOLD TO PEPSICO IN 1978.
Taco Bell’s success caught the soda giant’s eye as early as the late '60s. At first, the company tried to cash in on the trend with its own Mexican concept—Taco Kid, a restaurant started under the Pizza Hut brand. The idea failed miserably, so in the '70s PepsiCo decided that if they couldn’t compete with Taco Bell, they’d just buy them. Bell got $130 million in the deal.
6. THE ORIGINAL LOGO WAS A MESS.
The original Taco Bell logo was a colorful, lopsided creation depicting a man sleeping under a giant sombrero while sitting atop a bell (you really have to look for it). After PepsiCo took over, it quickly came up with a cleaner concept: A bell placed over the company name. As Larry Higby, then senior vice-president of marketing for Taco Bell told Advertising Age, “We needed to look more mainstream.”
7. REMEMBER 59-79-99?
By the early '90s, Taco Bell had streamlined its operations to the point where it could offer dirt-cheap prices on all its menu items. Enter the 59-79-99 value promotion, which offered everything from tacos to nachos to cinnamon twists at one of those three price points. Started in 1991, the campaign was heavily promoted through TV and radio advertising, and put serious pressure on Taco Bell’s hamburger-slinging competitors. Sales increased 60 percent that year, and Harvard Business Review named Taco Bell the top-performing fast-food company in the nation.
8. THE TACO BELL CHIHUAHUA NEVER PAID OFF.
Eager to turn around its flagging sales in the mid '90s, Taco Bell executives put big hopes into a tiny package. In 1997, they put out a series of ads featuring the now-iconic Chihuahua (whose name was Gidget) spouting the line, “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” The ad became a cultural sensation and spawned further taglines, like “Viva Gordita!” and “Drop the Chalupa.” There was just one problem: The ads didn’t inspire people to actually buy more tacos and chalupas. In 2000, Taco Bell pulled the plug on the concept. Making matters worse, the company had to settle a $42 million lawsuit in 2003 brought by two ad men who claimed they came up with the idea. Gidget, meanwhile, kept going like a true professional, making cameos in Geico ads and starring in movies like Legally Blonde 2 before passing away at the ripe old age of 15.
9. IT HAD A “HIT THE TARGET” PROMOTION INVOLVING THE MIR SPACE STATION.
In 2001, after Russia announced it would bring down the Mir space station following 15 years in orbit, Taco Bell put up a huge floating bullseye in the South Pacific off the coast of Australia. The deal was that if any part of Mir, which was due to splash down in the ocean, hit any part of the target, everyone in America would get a free taco. It was a safe bet: Aeronautics experts predicted the chances at slim to none. And they were right.
10. IT CAN’T CRACK THE MEXICAN MARKET.
No surprise here. Despite having a robust presence abroad, with stores in the Middle East, Asia, Russia and even Iceland, Taco Bell has failed to establish itself in the country that birthed its namesake food. In 1992, the company opened locations in Mexico City, then closed them down within two years. In 2007, Taco Bell tried again in Monterrey, with the same result. It’s a wonder they even tried at all, considering what these polled Mexican people (above) think of the food.
11. DISCONTINUED ITEMS INCLUDE THE CHILIBURGER, THE BELL BEEFER, AND THE BLACK JACK TACO.
Taco Bell didn’t always think outside the bun. It offered a chiliburger on its original menu, and followed up in the '70s with the Bell Beefer, which resembled a Sloppy Joe made with seasoned taco beef. The Black Jack Taco appeared around Halloween 2009 and quickly disappeared, much to the consternation of Bell fanatics. The loudest support for a comeback is the Beefy Crunch Burrito movement. These folks are not messing around.
12. THE DORITOS LOCOS TACO WAS A FORMIDABLE CHALLENGE FOR ENGINEERS.
In a recent Fast Company story, Taco Bell executives said the idea for the DLR, as it’s known within the company, was an immediate hit. But because Doritos chips and taco shells are two completely different entities, scientifically speaking, bringing it to life took some serious work. In two years time, Taco Bell’s design team tested more than 40 different recipes. An early consumer taste test went miserably, but the team pressed on, constantly tweaking the recipe along with manufacturing equipment. The struggle was definitely real: “We had teams of engineers working day and night to get the seasoner working,” according to Steve Gomez, Taco Bell’s food innovation expert. The payoff was grande, with more than 500 million Doritos Locos Tacos sold since they debuted in 2012. Based on that success, they quickly followed it up with the Doritos Cool Ranch Taco.
13. FOR THE RECORD, ITS “SEASONED BEEF” CONTAINS 88 PERCENT BEEF.
In 2011, an Alabama law firm brought a class action lawsuit against Taco Bell alleging the company’s “seasoned beef” only contained 35 percent beef—making it unfit under U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. Rather than shy away from the issue, Taco Bell leaned in. It spent close to $4 million on advertising to shore up its reputation, including a print ad that read “Thank You For Suing Us,” and including a list of their ingredients. After Taco Bell went public with the 88 percent figure, the law firm dropped the suit.
14. IT RECENTLY MOVED ITS FIRST RESTAURANT TO COMPANY HQ.
The original Taco Bell in Downey shut down in the '80s. In the decades that followed, other Mexican restaurants tried the location, most recently a Tacos Raul. In 2014, Raul moved out, and the building was up for demolition. After hearing word of this, Taco Bell executives moved in and did what Taco Bell executives do: Made a promotion out of it. The #SaveTacoBell campaign culminated in the company moving the entire restaurant 35 miles south, to its Irvine headquarters.
15. IT’S NOW SERVING WINE AND BEER.
The good news: Taco Bell now serves booze. The bad news (for most folks): It’s only serving at two new “Cantina” locations, one in Chicago, the other in San Francisco. Opened last fall, the new concepts target those illusive creatures known as Millennials, who frequent urban areas and want something closer to a Chipotle experience.