15 Facts You Might Not Know About Taco Bell

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.

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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.

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10 Strange Publicity Stunts by Major Food Brands
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Celebrities have always loved doing crazy things for press—but these days, even corporations will go to extreme lengths to get the word out about their products. Case in point: IHOP's recent attempt to create a little mystery, and sell some burgers, as IHOb. Below you’ll find 10 of the weirdest stunts done to promote mass-produced food items.

1. COLONEL SANDERS RAPPELS DOWN A HIGH-RISE

It’s hard to imagine KFC’s elderly Colonel Sanders doing much outside of eating and talking about his “finger lickin’ good” fried chicken. But in 2011, a man dressed as the Colonel strapped on a harness and rappelled down Chicago’s River Bend building. The Colonel didn't stop at rappelling down the 40-story building; he also handed out $5 everyday meals to window washers. What was KFC’s concept behind this dangerous promotion? They wanted to show the world they were taking lunch to “new heights.”

2. THE WORLD'S LARGEST POPSICLE

Sometimes being the biggest doesn’t mean you’re the best. In 2005, Snapple wanted to make the world’s largest Popsicle to promote their new line of frozen treats. Their plan was to display a 25-foot-tall, 17.5-ton treat of frozen Snapple juice in New York City’s Union Square. However, their plan ended in a sticky disaster. The day Snapple tried to present the Popsicle, New York was experiencing warmer than expected temperatures. The pop melted so quickly that a river of sticky sludge took over several streets. In a city already congested by traffic and tourists, this made Snapple enemy No. 1 that day to the people of New York City.

3. COFFEE CUPS ON CAR ROOFS = FREE COUPONS

A cup of Starbucks coffee
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Starbucks believes in rewarding those who embrace the holiday spirit. In 2005, the Seattle-based coffee giant developed a campaign by which brand ambassadors drove around with replicas of Vente Starbucks cups affixed to their car roofs. If anyone stopped the ambassador to warn them about the coffee cup on their roof, that person received a $5 gift card to Starbucks. Starbucks wanted the world to know being a good samaritan really can pay!

4. MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

Imagine walking the beach and finding a sealed bottle of Guinness. But instead of finding beer inside, you find a note from King Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. In 1959, that happened to people along North America’s Atlantic coast. Guinness wanted to build brand awareness in the area, so they dropped 150,000 sealed Guinness bottles into the ocean. The bottle contained Neptune’s scroll announcing the House of Guinness’s Bi-Centenary as well as a document instructing the reader on how to make a Guinness bottle into a table lamp. While no one got a free beer (boo!), they did walk away with an arts and crafts project.

5. EAU DE FLAME-BROILED

Who can resist the smell of flame-broiled burgers? The answer is most people—at least when it comes in the form of a body spray. Burger King’s 2008 campaign promoting the “scent of seduction” may be one of the weirdest ideas on this list. The fast-food company thought they could capture the world’s attention by creating and advertising a meat-scented cologne called FLAME by BK. Though select New York City stores actually sold the scent, all of this was a tongue-in-cheek campaign to make the 18- to 35-year-old male demographic laugh.

6. HERE COMES THE SUN

London commuters experienced an unexpectedly bright morning during January 2012. Tropicana worked with the art collective Greyworld to create a fake sun promoting their “Brighter Morning” campaign. The "sun," made up of more than 60,000 light bulbs, rose over Trafalgar Square at 6:51 a.m. on a particularly chilly morning. The sun set at 7:33 p.m. Tropicana continued to promote their sun day, fun day by having Londoners sit under the sun with branded sunglasses, deck chairs, and blankets. 

7. AIRPORT STEAK DELIVERY

Some of the craziest publicity stunts can’t be planned. We live in a world of 24/7 social media, and when the Twitterverse gave Morton’s Steakhouse an opportunity, they seized upon it. Before flying from Tampa to Newark, Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur and author, jokingly tweeted at Morton's Steakhouse that he wanted a porterhouse steak to be waiting for him when he landed. As Shankman was a frequent diner and social media influencer, Morton's Steakhouse saw the opportunity to start a conversation—and they went for it: When Shankman touched down in Newark, he was greeted by his car service driver and a Morton’s deliveryman. If only all travelers could experience that happiness in an airport.

8. BUYING THE LIBERTY BELL

April Fools Day gags can be great for brands … or an embarrassment. In 1996, Taco Bell took out an ad in The New York Times saying they bought Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. The ad also informed people of the bell’s new name: "Taco Liberty Bell." Back in the mid-1990s, people couldn’t go on Twitter or Facebook to find out the truth. Instead, they wrote the publication voicing their outrage. The hoax may have worked in getting press coverage (650 print publications and 400 broadcast media outlets publicized the joke), but what does that say about your brand when people actually believe you would rename a historic monument for your own gain?

9. CREATING THE LARGEST MAN-MADE FIRE


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In 2011, the Costa-Mesa based chain El Pollo Loco sent out press releases saying they planned to create the world’s largest man-made fire. Why would they create a fire? El Pollo Loco needed to get the word out about their new flame-grilled chicken. Spectators attending the event were shocked to see that this stunt was actually a commercial shoot for the brand. The chain says they really did attempt to break the record. But many publications have stated the whole promotion was a fraud. Note to brands: When trying to pull off a publicity stunt and a commercial simultaneously, tell everyone your plan in advance.

10. KFC IN SPACE

KFC may just be the king of wild publicity stunts. In 2006, the company created an 87,500-square-foot logo at Area 51 in Rachel, Nevada. The company wanted to be the first brand visible from space. And it was no coincidence they picked a spot near “The World’s Only Extraterrestrial Highway.”

“If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice,” said Gregg Dedrick, former president of KFC Corp. The world is not enough for KFC. They need the entire universe hooked on their Original Recipe.

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Fizzled Out: Why Coca-Cola Purposely Designed a Soft Drink to Fail
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In December 1992, media outlets from around the country filed into the Hayden Planetarium at New York City's American Museum of Natural History for what soft drink giant Coca-Cola was trumpeting as a “truly out-of-this-world experience.” In front of reporters, the company's North American president, Doug Ivester, unveiled a 16-ounce silver can that he hoped would change the landscape of soda.

The product was Tab Clear, a new version of the sugar- and calorie-free diet drink first introduced in 1963. While it retained its bubbles, the liquid was transparent, an obvious nod to rival Pepsi’s introduction of Crystal Pepsi earlier that year.

Publicly, Ivester boasted that Tab Clear would be yet another success in Coca-Cola’s long history of refreshment dominance. But behind the scenes, Ivester and chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman were convinced Tab Clear would be a failure—and that is exactly what they hoped would happen. Flying in the face of convention, the launch of Tab Clear was deliberately designed to self-destruct.

 
 

In the early 1990s, beverage manufacturers were heavily preoccupied with the idea of clear drinks that communicated a sense of wellness. The Coors company even produced a clear alcoholic malt beverage, Zima, to capitalize on the craze, but porting it over to the soft drink market was nothing new. In the 1940s, Soviet leader Georgy Zhukov used his friendly relationship with the U.S. to make an appeal for Coca-Cola to produce a clear version of their drink so he could enjoy it surreptitiously and without being accused of indulging in a capitalist product; the soda maker removed the caramel from the recipe, which essentially de-pigmented it. Coca-Cola also produced Sprite, a fizzy, lemon-tinged drink that didn’t use coloring.

But it wasn’t until Pepsi unveiled Crystal Pepsi in 1992 that marketing departments began to pay close attention to transparency in their product. Crystal Pepsi was essentially a fruit-flavored variation of regular Pepsi, with all the typical amounts of sugar and calories but no caffeine. That light could pass through the beverage was a novelty, albeit one that Pepsi believed could help them carve out a 2 percent slice of the $48 billion soft drink market. And if Pepsi could do that, it would mean less money for Coca-Cola.

Like a boxer preparing a counter-attack, Coke couldn’t simply sit back and allow Pepsi to strike without retaliation. But few within the company were sold on the longevity of the clear soda craze. Worse, the company had stumbled badly with New Coke in 1985, a new formula intended to replace the classic version that drew public criticism and created a public relations disaster. Tempting fate with a Clear Coke was out of the question.

Zyman had the answer. Before coming to Coke, Zyman had been a director of sales and marketing for Pepsi; he defected to Coca-Cola just in time for the highly successful launch of Diet Coke in 1982. After a sabbatical, Zyman—a notoriously combative executive who earned the nickname the “Aya-Cola” for his management style—returned as chief marketing officer and devised an ingenious plan to stifle Crystal Pepsi without risking the reputation of Coca-Cola Classic. His sacrificial pawn would be Tab.

Sometimes stylized as “TaB," the drink had been introduced in 1963 as an alternative for calorie-conscious consumers. Sold in a pink can, it was targeted specifically at women concerned about their weight and marketed as a solution to increase sex appeal. Tab, ads claimed, could help consumers “be a shape he won’t forget … Tab can help you stay in his mind.”

With Diet Coke available to help keep marriages from crumbling, Tab was relegated to an afterthought, falling from 4 percent of Coke's overall market share to just 1 percent. Zyman believed it was expendable. If Tab Clear happened to catch on, fine. If it didn’t, the failure wouldn’t reflect poorly on the Coke brand.

But Zyman wasn’t content to simply try to compete with Crystal Pepsi. In his mind, Tab Clear was what consumer brands refer to as a “kamikaze effort,” a product expected to fail. Zyman believed that the presence of Tab Clear on shelves would confuse consumers into believing Crystal Pepsi was a diet drink. (It wasn’t, though there was a Diet Crystal Pepsi version available.) By blurring the lines and confusing consumers who wanted either a calorie-free drink or a full-bodied indulgence, Zyman expected Tab Clear to be a dud and bring Crystal Pepsi down right along with it.

“It was a suicidal mission from day one,” Zyman told author Stephen Denny for his 2011 business book, Killing Giants. “Pepsi spent an enormous amount of money on the [Crystal Pepsi] brand and, regardless, we killed it.”

 
 

With Pepsi set for a massive ad spend on the January 1993 Super Bowl, Coke rolled out Tab Clear in 10 cities, with national expansion coming mid-year. Their ad spending was minimal. Coca-Cola made just enough noise to reposition Crystal Pepsi from a hot, trendy new drink to a product with an identity crisis.

“They were going to basically say it was a mainstream drink,” Zyman said. "'This is like a cola, but it doesn’t have any color. It has all this great taste.' And we said, 'No, Crystal Pepsi is actually a diet drink.' Even though it wasn’t. Because Tab had the attributes of diet, which was its demise. That was its problem. It was perceived to be a medicinal drink. Within three to five months, Tab Clear was dead. And so was Crystal Pepsi.”

The dissolution of soda products on shelves is not inherently dramatic, and there was no visceral evidence on display that Tab Clear was flailing. But by the end of 1993, Zyman’s prediction had come true. Crystal Pepsi had grabbed just 0.5 percent of the market, a quarter of Pepsi's prediction. Both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi were phased out and Coke was happy to write the dual obituary. “Now both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi are about to die,” Coca-Cola chairman Roberto Goizueta told Ad Week in November 1993.

But it was Pepsi that had spent millions in development and $40 million in marketing; it took the company 18 months to formulate their failure. Coke spent just two months on Tab Clear. It was a barnacle that dragged its far more ambitious rival down with it.

Zyman continued to work for Coca-Cola through 1998. Clear products never caught on as some companies anticipated, though they do experience periodic revivals. Zima returned to shelves in 2017, and Crystal Pepsi has had promotional comebacks.

In one final twist, and despite Ivester's earlier declaration that Clear Coke would never see the light of day, the company’s Japanese arm released a zero-calorie Coca-Cola Clear in the country on June 11. This time, they might even want it to succeed.

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