Glen Bell tried several businesses in his lifetime. Only one stuck, but it became one of the giants of the fast food industry: Taco Bell.
Bell opened the first Taco Bell in Downey 60 years ago, on March 21, 1962.
Born in 1923 and raised near San Bernardino, Bell wanted to do for the taco what his neighbors, the McDonald brothers, did for the hamburger at their McDonald’s drive-in.
He opened his own hamburger stand in San Bernardino across the street from a restaurant called Mitla Cafe. Its owners are often credited with teaching him about Mexican food.
Bell found a fast, cheap way to make hard shells for his tacos in the 1950s, and he was on his way. But it took him more than 10 years to find success with Taco Bell.
Bell sold Taco Bell to PepsiCo in 1978. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1985 and died in 2010. But Taco Bell continues to grow under its current parent company, Yum! Brands.
Based in Irvine, Taco Bell had 7,791 restaurants worldwide at the end of 2021.
Fans are drawn to Taco Bell by the consistency of the food, low prices, nostalgia and curiosity over the new — and sometimes outrageous — things it is constantly adding to its menu for a limited time, according to Blake Hundley, founder of a fan website called Living Más.
“For years now, every four to six weeks, they have what they call a new experience: new items, new promos, new offers,” he said in a phone interview.
In a phone interview, Mario Natarelli, managing partner in an agency called MBLM that does annual studies of how brands emotionally bond with customers, said that a brand as well-known as Taco Bell has “incredible assets it can leverage.” .
“There aren’t many iconic brands in the world. You can put that brand out there, and people will know it and understand it. There’s value there. The question is, how do you make it resonate for the times.”
Taco Bell’s early image hasn’t aged well. In its early years, it promoted itself with Mexican stereotypes such as oversized sombreros and slogans such as “Run for the border.” The issue came to a head in the late 1990s with an advertising campaign featuring a Spanish-speaking chihuahua. Although it was popular, it led to calls for boycotts. In 1998, a company spokesperson responded that the commercials didn’t portray the dog “in a fashion that is derogatory or insensitive toward Mexicans,” according to the Associated Press.
In recent years, the chain’s take on Mexican foods has been called by critics as “cultural appropriation” or exploitation.
Taco Bell issued a statement about its history, saying, “Taco Bell has long acknowledged that its menu is inspired by Mexican cuisine, with the brand’s history tracing back 60 years to when founder Glen Bell was taught how to create delicious hard shell tacos in a local Mexican restaurant that crafted a version of the staple dish we know, love and see on the menus of many restaurants today. Since then, Taco Bell’s food innovators have created a unique menu that is bold, craveable and affordable. Over the next 60 years, Taco Bell is hoping to further honor its Southern California heritage and the authentic cuisine that originally inspired its menu.”
Here are 60 things about Taco Bell that make it what it is. Sources include newspaper stories and Bell’s 1999 biography, “Taco Titan,” by Debra Lee Baldwin.
Facts about the founder
1. Bell was born in 1923 and raised in Cedar Springs, a small community in the San Bernardino Mountains that no longer exists. It has been covered by a reservoir called Silverwood Lake.
2. Bell got an early taste of food service as a teenager helping an aunt make pies in her bakery, according to Baldwin in “Taco Titan.”
3. After military service in World War II, Bell returned to San Bernardino and got married. He wanted to run his own miniature golf course. He leased one in Fontana, but it failed.
4. Thanks to guys like Bell and the McDonald Brothers, Richard and Maurice, San Bernardino was a hotbed of fast-food innovation. Bell got the idea of opening his own fast food stand while eating at McDonald’s original drive-in in San Bernardino.
5. To save money, Bell did his own construction work on his first hamburger stand, which opened in San Bernardino in 1948. He sold his wife’s refrigerator to pay for building materials, Baldwin wrote. The stand blew down in a windstorm, and the marriage didn’t last.
6. Bell tried again at a different hamburger stand and is said to have discovered hard-shell tacos from a sit-down restaurant across the street. It’s called Mitla Cafe, and it will reach its 85th anniversary this year, run by descendants of its original owners. The story was related on a November broadcast of “CBS Sunday Morning.”
7. After perfecting a hard shell for tacos and a system for assembling them quickly, Bell began selling them at the stand in December 1951. He fried the shells in a basket he made out of chicken wire, according to “Taco Titan.”
8. Bell gave the hamburger stand to his first wife in a divorce settlement and then started two other fast food chains, Taco Tia and El Taco. He turned to partners for financing, and when the partners wanted to go in different directions than he did, he walked away.
9. The first Taco Bell at 7126 Firestone Blvd., Downey cost $8,500, according to “Taco Titan.” It was designed to look like “old Mexico” by architect Robert McKay.
10. Bell built a Mexico-themed strip mall called Plaza Guadalajara next door. Newspaper ads show it celebrated its grand opening in July 1963.
11. Taco Bell grew quickly through franchising, which began in 1965.
12. The first Taco Bell outside of California opened in 1966 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
13. After Taco Bell, he attempted a barbecue concept, Hickory Bell, which failed.
14. Bell didn’t lose his interest in amusement parks after the miniature golf failure. He attempted to turn a logging railroad in Tuolumne County into a tourist attraction in the late 1970s.
15. One of Bell’s last projects was Bell Gardens, an educational farm near his Valley Center home in northern San Diego County. It was open to the public and featured miniature train rides. It opened in 1993 and lasted for a decade.
Fast food competition
16. By the time Taco Bell opened, there were plenty of people trying to sell Mexican fast food, including Bell’s friends from San Bernardino, Neal Baker and Ed Hackbarth. What would become Baker’s Drive-Thru opened in 1952, and Hackbarth was on his way to founding Del Taco.
17. Bell mentored one of his El Taco employees, John Galardi, who went on to found the hot dog chain Wienerschnitzel in 1961.
18. Bell remained friends with his competitors. He was suffering from Parkinson’s disease when he was interviewed by public television personality Huell Howser for a 2000 episode of his “Visiting” series. Baker and Hackbarth joined him for the shoot and did most of the talking.
Evolution of the restaurants
19. Following McKay’s original design, the first Taco Bells were intended to look like early California buildings with stucco exteriors, rounded arches, red tile and large bells on the roof. They had walkup windows, a few tables and fire pits.
20. In 2015, Taco Bell saved the first building from demolition and moved it to its headquarters in Irvine, where it remains in storage.
21. Early menu boards included the pronunciation of words such as “taco,” “burrito” and “frijoles.”
22. The design gradually gave way to more conventional buildings with drive-thrus and dining rooms.
23. The chain tried something new in 2015, opening its first Taco Bell Cantina in Chicago. Cantinas serve beer, wine and shareable snacks. Southern California’s first — and so far only — Taco Bell Cantina opened in Newport Beach in 2017.
24. A Taco Bell Cantina on the Las Vegas Strip opened in 2016, featuring the chain’s first merchandise shop and a wedding chapel.
25. As of February 2022, there were 800 Taco Bell restaurants in 31 countries outside of the United States.
26. California has 848 Taco Bells, according to data company ScrapeHero.
27. Bakersfield is the California city with the most Taco Bells, 24, according to the chain’s website.
28. Houston, Texas, is the city with the most Taco Bells, with 64 locations, according to ScrapeHero.
29. Taco Bell’s original 1962 menu had five items, each priced at 19 cents: tacos, burritos, tostadas, frijoles and “chili burgers.”
30. Chili burgers, taco filling on a hamburger bun, were renamed Bell Beefers. They were dropped in the 1980s.
31. Notable menu additions include the Enchirito in 1970. It featured a flour tortilla filled with beans and meat, topped with red sauce and grated cheese, and decorated with three olive slices. It dropped off the menu and returned in the ‘90s, only to leave again in 2013.
32. In 1985, Taco Bell introduced a tostada on a crispy 7-inch flour tortilla it called Pizzazz Pizza. The concept evolved into Mexican Pizza, which stayed on the menu until 2020. Its removal launched an enduring fan outcry. Taco Bell has hinted it will bring the fan-favorite back this year.
33. In the late ‘90s, Taco Bell introduced different kinds of shells, the gordita and the chalupa.
34. PepsiCo introduced Mountain Dew Baja Blast as an exclusive Taco Bell fountain drink in 2004.
35. Taco Bell began creating tacos with Doritos-flavored shells in 2012 with the Doritos Locos Taco. It was Taco Bell’s most successful product launch to date, selling 100 million of them in 10 weeks, the company reported.
36. Taco Bell experimented with shells made out of chicken meat and fried eggs in 2017. The items, called the Naked Chicken Chalupa and the Naked Egg Taco, were briefly on the menu.
37. Nacho Fries replaced Doritos Locos Taco as the chain’s most successful launch in 2018. The seasoned french fries with cheese dip have been brought back several times as a limited-time item, most recently on March 10.
38. Taco Bell uses ingredients that are American Vegetarian Association-certified. “Taco Bell was always the easiest fast food option for us,” said Living Más founder Hundley, a vegetarian. “That’s when my love for it started.”
Advertising, promotions and merchandising
39. In the 1960s, Glen Bell often staged elaborate restaurant openings with lots of floodlights, mariachis, folk dancers and straw hat giveaways.
40. Taco Bell Boy, a shoeless child in a large sombrero, was the chain’s first mascot.
41. One early giveaway was a 1967 LP called “Taco Bell Presents Tijuana Taxi,” featuring cover versions of hits by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass as well as a couple of self-serving tracks, “19 Cents Frijoles” and “Lullaby Taco Bell.”
42. For a few years beginning in the late 1980s, Taco Bell used the slogan, “Run for the border.”
43. “Batman” with Michael Keaton was one of the biggest movies of 1989, and Taco Bell had notable success with its tie-ins, which included giving away 32-ounce plastic “Batman” cups with drink purchases. Sales of the cups shot above 20 million, more than double the 10 million Taco Bell expected.
44. Taco Bell ran a series of commercials with a talking chihuahua from 1997 to 2000. The dog was named Gidget, and her dubbed catchphrases were, “Yo quiero Taco Bell” and “Drop the chalupa.” The campaign caused several chapters of the League of United Latin American Citizens to call for a Taco Bell boycott, calling the ads demeaning, which the company denied.
45. Gidget tried to capture Godzilla in a Taco Bell commercial tied into the 1998 remake of the monster story.
46. Gidget also “rang” the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on May 2, 2000.
47. Taco Bell adopted the slogan, “Think outside the bun” in 2002. It lasted for a decade before being replaced by the current slogan, “Live Más.”
48. The first “Steal a Base, Steal a Taco” promotion took place in 2007. Taco Bell gave away one free taco to anyone who wanted it after the first stolen base in the World Series.
49. Fast food met fast fashion in 2017 when Taco Bell partnered with Forever 21 on a branded clothing line that included tops, bodysuits, cropped hoodies, sweatshirts and jackets.
50. The chain marked the 2018 holiday season by selling scented “CrunchWrapping Paper” with such designs as ground beef and tortillas.
51. In August, 2019, Taco Bell converted an existing boutique hotel near downtown Palm Springs into the Taco Bell Hotel & Resort for four days. With everything from room decorations to the gift shop, beauty salon and pool area sporting Taco Bell themes, not to mention the food service, it was a social media influencer’s dream come true.
Pop culture and fans
52. In the 1993 futuristic thriller “Demolition Man,” set in 2032, Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock visit a Taco Bell, “the only restaurant to survive the franchise wars.” In Europe, the brand was changed to Pizza Hut, which was considered more recognizable overseas.
53. Taco Bell created a “Demolition Man” pop-up restaurant for the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con International.
54. In the 2004 film “Mean Girls,” one girl tries to cheer up a friend who’s been dumped by her boyfriend by asking, “You wanna do something fun? You wanna go to Taco Bell?” When Oct. 3 was declared Mean Girls Day in honor of the film, Taco Bell became one way to celebrate.
55. Taco Bell partnered with Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt of the MTV reality show “The Hills” on an anti-hunger campaign. The couple hosted a fund-raising event in 2008 at a restaurant in Los Angeles.
56. Comedian Adam Carolla called his 2013 memoir “Not Taco Bell Material.” On “The Howard Stern Show,” Carolla said a North Hollywood restaurant rejected a sloppy application he submitted as a teenager.
57. Writer M.M. Carrigan founded an online literary magazine called the Taco Bell Quarterly in 2020. He has put out four issues of fiction, essays, poetry and comics. Titles of the works include “Crazy, Stupid Tacos,” “No Sauce” and “Vegetarian Options.”
58. When Taco Bell pulled an item called the Beefy Crunch Burrito in 2011, fan Richard Axton launched a years-long campaign to bring it back, succeeding in 2018. His Beefy Crunch Movement claimed 68,000 fans.
59. In 2021, composer Gabriela Ortiz debuted a concerto called “D’Colonial Californiano” that uses bells to satirize Taco Bell, according to an interview with public radio station KQED.
60. Dolly Parton became the face of the push to restore Mexican Pizza to the menu in January 2022. In a video interview with Insider, she said she likes it and thinks they should bring it back.