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The Origins of Cult-Favorite Fast Food Restaurants: Taco Bell


Launched as a side business, it was never supposed to run the show.

If history had played out in a slightly different way, Taco Bell (YUM) might not have ever sold a single taco.

When the late Glen Bell was discharged from the US Marine Corps in 1946, he returned to his hometown of San Bernardino, California, with a grand idea -- to open a miniature golf course.

But the expense of building a pseudo-duffer's paradise proved too rich for Bell's blood, so he opened Bell's Drive-In instead, which offered a somewhat limited menu -- hamburgers and hot dogs.

At the beginning, Bell wasn't even bringing in enough revenue to buy a sack of chalupas at today's prices. His first day brought in a grand total of $20. By the end of the year, his operation was bringing in about $150 a day. However, Bell had bigger plans. He sold his stand a few years later to open a bigger, better version of Bell's Drive-In.

The stars didn't align for Bell, to put it mildly. In what could be the unluckiest coincidence of all time, Bell just so happened to open his new restaurant in the same town as a similar business. It was owned by two brothers named McDonald, who had teamed up with a traveling milkshake machine salesman named Ray Kroc.

McDonald's (MCD) was a success, and Bell searched for a way to be competitive. He hit upon the idea of expanding his menu to include tacos.

It was personal experience that brought Bell to this conclusion. A Mexican food lover, Bell knew the frustrations of ordering tacos to-go from full-service restaurants.

"If you wanted a dozen," he said, "you were in for a wait. They stuffed them first, quickly fried them and stuck them together with a toothpick. I thought they were delicious, but something had to be done about the method of preparation."

And so, Taco Bell was born, although the Taco Bell name was still in its gestation period. For now, Bell called his fledgling enterprise Taco Tia. The price per taco? $0.19.

"My plan for experimenting with tacos was to obtain a location in a Mexican neighborhood," Bell would later tell the author of Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story (Bookworld, 1999). "That way, if tacos were successful, potential competitors would write it off to the location and assume that the idea wouldn't sell anywhere else."

Bell dove headfirst into the world of tacos. The first hurdle to overcome was making the shells. They had to be prepared quickly -- fried first and stuffed later. Bell had seen a rudimentary version of a stainless steel deep-fat fry basket for tortillas and decided to try to improve upon it.

"It was very experimental, but I went ahead and had someone make one for me. We hadn't thought about using wire yet, so we came up with a heavy stainless version which stayed very hot and fried one at a time," he said.

"I'll never forget the first taco customer because naturally, I was really concerned about his reaction," Bell recounted. "He was dressed in a suit, and as he bit into the taco the juice ran down his sleeve and dripped on his tie. I thought, 'We've lost this one,' but he came back, amazingly enough, and said, 'That was good, I'll take another one!'"

In 1956, Bell was ready to expand, but a recessionary economic climate had hit and Glen was stretched financially. Enter the Los Angeles Rams.

As Bell explained, "The LA Rams trained in Redlands where we had a Taco Tia. They liked the food. They'd order a dozen tacos and stand out at the counter and eat them. We really became kind of a hangout for them, and as it turned out, my very first franchise was the Taco Tia two of them bought in Los Angeles. They were football heroes, and their enthusiasm was exciting."

The excitement led to yet another name change. Taco Tia was now El Tacos. Bell stayed involved for another six years before selling out to his partners and opening the first Taco Bell in Downey, Califonia.

Up next: franchising. Kermit Becky, a former LAPD cop, bought the first Taco Bell franchise in 1964. It was so successful, other prospective franchisees were practically beating down the door to open their own.

It may have been financially rewarding, but Bell longed for the personal touch of the old days.

"Once we got up to 100 restaurants, it changed for me," he remarked. "I hated the day when we had to start numbering the units."

In 1975, Glen tendered his resignation. Three years later, the business was sold for $130 million to PepsiCo (PEP), which spun it off in 1997.

Now part of the Yum Brands stable, which also includes KFC, Pizza Hut, A&W Restaurants, and Long John Silver's, Taco Bell's popularity continues to grow.

The chain's Value Menu keeps its core clientele -- 18-to-34-year-olds -- coming back for cheap, filling food. And late-night hours appeal to the college crowd all fast food restaurants covet.

So do stunts like promising a free taco to all living Americans if the Mir Space Station hit a floating target set up by Taco Bell 10 miles off the coast of Australia when it came crashing back down to earth in 2001.

It missed.

Whether you pay for it or not, consider yourself lucky the next time you inhale a gordita -- if Glen Bell had been a rich man when he left the service, you might be putting a little white ball through a model windmill right now.

See also: Lawsuit Claims Taco Bell's Beef Is Actually "Beef."
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