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Transforming the Taco: The Origins of Taco Bell

Taco Bell
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“I always smile when I hear people say that they never had a taco until Taco Bell came to town.” Glen Bell Jr.

"Glen worked 18-hour days, seven days a week. When you’re building a business and growing fast, it’s hard. There were a lot of problems. Glen was successful because he didn’t give up." –Robert L. Trujillo.

Taco Bell
First Taco Bell in Downey, CA

It was a strange sight. In November 2015, a large flatbed truck wound through the nighttime streets of Downey, at a snail’s-pace of 20-miles an hour. Strapped to it was the first Taco Bell, opened by founder Glen Bell Jr. in 1962. The 400-square-foot building, known to loyal customers as “numero uno,” was being taken from its original location at 7126 Firestone Blvd. to company headquarters in Irvine. Vacated by Taco Bell in 1986, vacant since 2014, the building was to be put in storage until the company decided what to do with it. Fans of the fast food institution trailed behind the lumbering truck. "This building started it all," Taco Bell spokesman Matt Price exclaimed when it finally arrived at its new home (where it still resides) in the early morning. "It's No. 1 in our hearts."

Bell, who died in 2010, may have begged to differ. For the innovative, restless Bell, the opening of the first Taco Bell was simply the idea that finally caught fire, after a decade of working to bring a Mexican-inspired menu to the masses.

Glen William Bell Jr. was born in Lynwood, California in 1923. His family were the poor relations of a well-to-do family, and his mother struggled to put food on the table, receiving sporadic help from her ne’er-do-well husband. When Bell was a preteen, the family moved to the rural farming community of Cedar Springs, outside of San Bernardino. Glen often helped his mother with chores, and in the process became a good cook–his sister remembered especially enjoying his French fries. At the height of the depression, a teenage Bell rode the rails around the American Southwest on summer breaks from school, looking for work and hanging out with “hobos.” These early experiences made him understand the importance of comfort food in peoples' lives. “Glen used to say, when people were about broke with very little money, they would spend their last dime on a hamburger,” his brother Merrill recalled.

During one of his summer adventures, Bell stayed with his elderly Aunt Mary in Tacoma, Washington. He convinced her to go into business with him, and soon they were selling “Mrs. Dyes Homemade Pies.” “I got really fast at it,” Bell remembered. “I learned with pie dough, the less you mix it, the more tender it is.” The pair also sold puffed wheat, a popular depression era staple. By the end of the summer, the small enterprise had made an astonishing $3000 profit. Bell continued to hone his kitchen skills during World War II. He joined the U.S. Marines, where he prepared and served food to high ranking generals and admirals in a commissary on the Solomon Islands.

Glen Bell
U.S. Marine Glen Bell

When Bell returned home to San Bernardino, he followed the normal GI path. He got married, established a household, and tried out several different career paths. He would often meet his buddies at McDonalds, where he would marvel at the success of the McDonald brothers. After a lifetime in food service, he decided to go into business for himself, and leased a tiny plot of land near a popular public swimming pool. He bought a grill on credit, and built a tiny hamburger-stand with his own two hands. “I must have looked like I knew what I was doing,” Bell recalled. “Because people who saw me work offered construction jobs, and I made a few extra dollars on the side.”

Bell’s Hamburgers opened in March of 1948. Bell soon opened another hamburger stand on the corner of Oak and Mount Vernon, in a predominately Latino neighborhood on the outskirts of San Bernardino. Although business was brisk, Bell saw the writing on the wall. Due to the astounding success of the McDonald brothers, hamburger stands would soon saturate Southern California. Bell needed a hook. He found it in a Mexican-owned restaurant across the street, where they served delicious tortillas filled with meat and cheese. They called these mouth-watering treats tacos. His friends at the restaurant began to teach him how to make the yummy snack, and soon he was experimenting in his own kitchen–attempting to fry a hard-shelled taco that would be less messy and easy to eat on the go. “I worked with an equipment salesman who contacted a man who made chicken coops,” Bell recalled. “He made a fry basket for me out of chicken wire.”

Taco Bell: Bell's Burgers
Bell's Burgers

That problem solved, Glen went to work making his own version of seasoning and sauce. “I mixed tomato puree with chopped fresh onions, garlic, cayenne pepper, vinegar and Mexican spices,” he remembered, “and left out the liquid smoke.” He loved cooking tacos for many reasons, including the fact that cooking taco meat in a pan was much cleaner than spending 12-hours in front of a hot grill flipping burgers. “It bubbles rather that sizzles,” said Bell, “which makes a big difference.”

By December 1951, Bell was ready to put his hunch to the ultimate test. One cool morning, he added a 19 cent taco to the menu and waited for a customer to order one. His first customer, a man from the neighborhood, bought a hot dog and nothing else. Next came a man in a loud, pinstriped suit, who Bell took to be a salesman. According to biographer Debra Lee Baldwin:  

Glen considered inviting him to try a taco for free. But before he made the offer, the man said, ‘Gimmie one of those…” he hesitated, then squinted at the newly painted sign. “Take-ohs.” The pitch of his voice, raised on the second syllable, made the word a question. Glen seized a crisp folded tortilla, filled the shell one third full of meat, sprinkled it with shredded lettuce and cheese, topped it with a spoonful of mild chili sauce, and wrapped the taco in waxed paper. In fifteen seconds the customer held it in his hand. He stood near the window, examined the taco, then bit it. “Juice ran down his sleeve and dripped on his tie,” Glen says. “I thought, uh-oh, we’re not going to be successful. We’ve lost this one.” Glen felt his cheeks redden…He opened the cash register, but before he could refund the 19 cents, the man dug into his pants pocket and produced two dimes. “That was good,” he said. “Gimmie another.”
Taco Bell Menu
Taco Bell menu

Bell’s intuition had been correct. Tacos were a hit. Over the next ten years, the tireless Bell would be involved in the creation of a number of fast food enterprises, most of them involving the taco. With partners, he founded Taco Tia, El Taco, and helped his friend John Galardi open the first Wienerschnitzel. One of his first employees and partners was Ed Hackbarth, who would go on to found the popular Del Taco. “All of Glen’s instincts are right,” Galardi would say years later. “His thoughts had to do with freshness, quick service and happy customers. The money didn’t matter to him. The customer came first. Business people need a product, and creative types like Glen provided it.”

During the ‘50s, Bell also got divorced. He soon remarried a school teacher named Martha, who would be his tireless supporter through 54 years of marriage. 

By 1962, having sold all his interests in his different partnerships, Bell was ready to strike out on his own. He bought a plot of land on Firestone Boulevard in Downey, and built a courtyard of open air shops that he called “Plaza Guadalajara.” One of the shops was a small “south-of-the-border” style food stand designed by architect Robert McKay, which he named “Taco Bell.” “I’d been teased about my name when I was a kid, ding-dong Bell, that sort of thing,” Bell recalled. “This gave the name a positive ring, no pun intended.”

The fast-food restaurant, with its outdoor eating area and five item menu of tostadas, burritos, tacos, frijoles and hamburgers (made with taco meat), was an immediate hit. Within two years, Taco Bell was in Gardena, Altadena, and Pasadena. Each new grand opening was a community event. “There were search lights, mariachis, and free hats. You can imagine what people were thinking,” friend Bob Trujillo remembered. “They thought it was a World’s Fair or something, and it was just this little taco stand. During one grand opening, my wife Phyllis and I drove by, and we couldn’t believe it. There was Glen on the roof of the building, fixing balloons. He loved grand openings.”

Taco Bell: Prom
Taco Bell's outdoor eating area

From there, Taco Bell’s success skyrocketed. The first franchised Taco Bell opened in 1965. In 1967, Taco Bell’s 100th location opened in Anaheim. Bell was over the moon. “I was as excited as if I had found gold,” he recalled. Bell believed that Taco Bell’s amazing trajectory was due to his 60 “Recipes for Success,” which he believed could help anyone succeed. The top three rules were:  

1. You build a business one customer at a time.
2. Find the right product, then find a way to mass-produce it.
3. An innovative product will set you apart.

Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Taco Bell continued to expand all across America at break-neck speed. Many credited Bell with bringing Mexican food to the masses, although those who had grown up with authentic Mexican food strongly disagreed. By 1977, there were 759 Taco Bells in 38 states. Only a year later, when Bell sold the company to PepsiCo for $125 million, it boasted 868 locations. Not bad for a farm boy from rural San Bernardino, who started out with only a hunch, a dream and a tireless drive to succeed.

 Vintage Taco Bell Sign
Vintage Taco Bell sign

Further Reading 

Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story by Debra Lee Baldwin

Top image via Thomas Hawk/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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