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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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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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