If you’re anything like me, then when a friend asks, “Hey, do you wanna go to Taco Tuesday at that new place over by–” you interrupt with, “Whoa whoa whoa. You had me at taco.” I was flipping through one of my favorite Oxford volumes, The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink edited by renowned food historian Andrew F. Smith, and came across the entries for both Taco and Taco Bell. After reading some surprising sections aloud to fascinated colleagues, I decided I couldn’t keep these morsels to myself. “Oh please,” you might say, “I already know all there is to know about tacos!” No, my good sir/lady, I don’t think you do. So in advance, you’re welcome. –Lauren Appelwick, Blog Editor
In Mexico the word “taco,” which means a bite or snack, came to refer to a particular genre of edibles – a tortilla wrapped or folded around a filling [...] (The traditional Mexican taco is made with a soft, fresh corn tortilla; “hard shell” tacos, made with tortillas fried in a basket to give them a sturdy “U” shape, are a creation of Mexican restaurants in the United States.) The first known English-language taco recipes appeared in California cookbooks beginning in 1914.[...] Until the 1960s tacos were mainly served in California and the Southwest at small roadside taco stands run by Mexican Americans. This changed when Glen Bell launched the first Mexican American fast food franchise in 1962 in Downey, California. Taco Bell had to overcome vast distrust and prejudice among many American consumers against Mexican restaurants. The new chain’s advertising emphasized that these were American restaurants that just happened to server Mexican-style food. Taco Bell assured the public that it’s tacos and other offerings were no more spicy or “foreign” than hamburgers. [...]
During the early 1950s, few Americans outside California and the Southwest knew what a taco was. In the early twenty-first century Mexican American food is one of America’s fastest-growing cuisines. Although there are many reasons for this change, one was the Taco Bell fast food chain launched by Glenn Bell.
Bell operated a one-man hamburger and hot dog stand in San Bernardino, California, but he liked eating Mexican take-out food. Taco stands dotted the southern California landscape, but none offered fast food. Bell developed ways to improve the efficiency of preparing Mexican food. At the time, taco shells were made by frying soft tortillas for a few minutes. Bell invented a prefabricated hard taco shell, which did not have to be fried, thus saving time on each order. Bell also developed procedures for accelerating service.
Bell decided to test his new ideas. Bell opened a Taco Tia restaurant in 1954 in San Bernardino, California, the same year and the same city in which Richard and Maurice McDonald opened their revolutionary fast food establishment. Like the McDonald brothers, Bell quickly opened more restaurants in the surrounding area. Bell sold his interest in Taco Tia, and with new partners launched another chain, El Taco. The first outlet was opened in 1958 in Long Beach, California.
In 1962 Bell sold his share in El Taco to his partners and opened the first Taco Bell, in Downey, California. The menu consisted mainly of tacos and burritos plus beverages. This small outlet was quickly followed by eight stores in the Long Beach, Paramount, and Los Angeles areas. These establishments generated fifty thousand dollars per year, and Bell decided to franchise the operation. The resulting Taco Bell chain used the symbol of a sleeping Mexican sitting under a sombrero, and the buildings had a California mission style.
By 1978 Taco Bell had 868 restaurants, which specialized in selling tacos, burritos, and a few other food items. Glen Bell sold the company to PepsiCo, and management was placed in the hands of John Martin, who had worked for several fast food companies. Martin made Taco Bell’s Mexican-style dishes popular throughout the United States by means of heavy discounting and value meals, which combined foods and drinks for cost savings. By 1980, Taco Bell had 1,333 outlets and was rapidly expanding. One reason for the expansion was the continuing introduction of new products, such as fajitas, wraps, gorditas, and chalupas.
Taco Bell has had both success and failure in its promotional efforts. The original symbol was a sleepy Mexican. This symbol was thought to be a negative stereotype, and it was immediately replaced by a mission bell when PepsiCo took over. On the success side were commercials that starred a talking Chihuahua, who squealed “Yo quiero Taco Bell!”
Taco Bell is the leading Mexican-style quick-service restaurant chain in the United States, with more than $4.9 billion in system-wide sales. Taco Bell serves more than 55 million consumers each week in 6,400 restaurants in the United States. In 1997, Taco Bell was spun off from PepsiCo and became a division of Yum! Brands Inc., which also owns KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s, and A&W restaurants.