The History of Taco Bell

Who hasn’t been to Taco Bell, or hasn’t at least heard of it? Taco Bell is one of the biggest fast-food chains in the United States that also operates in over 25 countries worldwide.

It offers Mexican-inspired menu with a distinctively American flavor. Aside from tacos, Taco Bell also serves burritos, quesadillas, nachos, etc., that makes the chain unique from its burgers-and-fries competitors.

black and white image of a man, smiling
Glen Bell, founder of Taco Bell

The story of Taco Bell is a typical “American Dream” tale. Taco Bell is named after its founder, Glen Bell (1923 – 2010). Food and cooking were his life and passion. Before he opened the first Taco Bell store in 1962, Bell owned and ran several other restaurants. But before he even entered the restaurant business, Bell served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a cook during World War II.

After the war, the 23-year-old Bell opened his first food business, a hot dog stand called Bell’s Drive-In, in San Bernardino, California. Four years later he opened a hamburger stand, Bell’s Hamburgers and Hot Dogs in a Latino-dominated community in San Bernardino. One day, Bell noticed a Mexican restaurant across the street called Mitla Cafe, which attracted long lines of residents in the area for its hard-shelled tacos. Bell would later regularly dine at Mitlas in an attempt to reverse-engineer the taco recipe. Eventually, he became good friends with the restaurant owners who taught him how to make tacos.

In 1952, Bell opened his own taco stand, called Taco-Tia. It became a success, and Bell bought more taco stands, including four named El Taco.

In 1962, Bell sold his stake in El Taco to launch a new restaurant called Taco Bell. It opened its first store at a modest 20-by-20-foot stucco building located on 7112 Firestone Boulevard in Downey.

Taco Bell’s fare soon became a massive hit, which enabled Bell to sell his first franchise within two years. The chain expanded quickly, and by 1967 there were over a hundred Taco Bell restaurants. In 1970 he took the company public, and at the time, there were 325 Taco Bell restaurants, most of them concentrated on the West Coast.

Things began to turn around for Taco Bell in 1978 when soft drink giant PepsiCo purchased 868 Taco Bell stores for $125 million. This was a significant development because the deal transformed Taco Bell from a regional smash into a nationwide sensation.

In 1995 entered a partnership with KFC. Two years later, both restaurants were under Tricon Global Restaurants (which would be then known as Yum! Brands) when it ended its partnership with PepsiCo.

Like many other fast-food chains, Taco Bell has never stopped introducing new menu items and expanding restaurant concepts, while broadening its marketing, branding, and promotional efforts at the same time. It also has had tie-ins and sponsorships, notably with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and the first ESPN X Games sponsorship in 1995. In 1990 Taco Bell launched its “value menu.” A year later, it introduced Taco Bell Express, a line of small-scale Taco Bell stores offering quick and cheap meals. You can find Taco Bell Express stalls inside other establishments such as convenience stores, shopping malls, and airports.

three tacos on a plate
It has also introduced unique marketing and promotional gimmicks. For instance, in 2001, the chain promised to give away free tacos to every American if the Soviet space station Mir hit its target – a 40-by-40-foot Taco Bell logo floating in the South Pacific. In 2007, it promised a free taco to everyone for every stolen base in the World Series. The promotion was called “Steal a Base, Steal a Taco.” It also devised a similar gimmick in the NBA – called “Steal a Game, Steal a Taco” – where the chain promised one free taco to every American for every ball steal in NBA Finals. This promotion was first launched during the 2016 NBA Finals and has been regularly held in every NBA Finals since.

In 2014, Taco Bell introduced its first breakfast menu for the early birds, which included waffle tacos and breakfast burritos alongside breakfast classics. That same year, the restaurant chain introduced a mobile ordering and payment app – the first of its kind in the fast-food industry. The following year it launched a vegetarian and vegan menu. Around the same time, Taco Bell opened a more upscale line of restaurants, called Taco Bell Cantina, which served special items and alcohol.

Taco Bell continues to innovate with its unique and aggressive marketing efforts that have made it one of the most popular fast-food chains, especially in the U.S. As of 2018, Taco Bell serves over two billion customers every year in its 7,702 restaurants in the U.S. and several countries around the world. Altogether, Taco Bell’s annual sales amount to about $10 billion.