Monday, July 06, 2009

Taco Bell: Bloggers, Headquarters Visit, History, Volcano Menu and More

Taco Bell Blogger Event

In late May, I got invited by Taco Bell along with other food bloggers for a behind the scenes look at a company that along with the McDonald's Brothers, started in Downey in the 1960's. 47 years later, it's still going strong. Our visit was hosted by Deborah Bell, Lauren Lloyd and Will Bortz and while the primary goal was for us to preview their expanded Volcano Menu, what fascinated me more is how this company got its start and that's where I want to start my post.

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Taco Bell Blogger Event

Our visit at the Taco Bell Headquarters really began in the lobby where the company history was literally on display. On one of the large side walls, there were light boards that showed the Taco Bell company time line. Each board represented a certain period and included dates, information, photos and even samples of the food packaging as well as plastic mockups of the food itself for that particular era.

Taco Bell Blogger Event:  Lobby

Taco Bell Blogger Event:  Lobby

That timeline was pretty helpful, but it wasn't until I read the Taco Titan, the biography of Taco Bell Founder, Glen Bell, that I developed a better appreciation of what a dynamic man he was and how much influence he really had on the fast food scene in Southern California. Before I talk about the Volcano menu and what I saw, did and tasted while we are at the Taco Bell Headquarters, I wanted to give you a peek into the early history of Glen Bell and what it took for him to start Taco Bell.

  • Influenced by the MacDonald Brother's success, Glen Bell opens Bell's Hamburgers and Hot Dogs at the age of 24 in San Bernardino County.

  • Built from the ground up by Glenn and his best friend, Neal Baker, even though they had no construction experience, Bell's Hamburger is considered to be one of the first walk-up, take-out restaurants in existence. Even the MacDonald Brothers Drive-In at the time was built around car hop service.

  • Giving into pressure from his wife to get a 9 to 5 job, Glenn sold Bell's Hamburgers to his sister's in-laws.
Taco Bell Blogger Event:  Lobby

  • Best friend, Neal Baker and Glenn Bell, open competing burger stands. Baker Burgers are still around today.

  • Bell builds a second restaurant and eventually sells that smaller burger stand to finance yet another restaurant.

  • Worried about the saturation of burger stands in San Bernadino, Glen explores the idea of selling a different product.

  • Inspired by soft tacos sold at Mexican restaurants, Glen comes up with the idea of a crispy taco that could be made and sold assembly-line style.

  • Introduces his "fast service" Mexican food at his second restaurant with much success.

  • Divorces first wife and to ensure the security of his son, Glen gives the two restaurants to his wife.
  • Glen moves to Barstow and opens up two more restaurants and sells both tacos and hamburgers. Soon tacos outsold the hamburgers.

  • With the success of the tacos, Glen contemplated opening up a Mexican only fast-food restaurant.

  • Partnered with Al McDonald (no relation to the McDonald Brothers) to open up Taco Tia.

  • Hired Ed Hackbarth to oversee Bell's Hamburgers in Barstow, which he turned into a second Taco Tia location after the success of the first one. The Barstow location still sold burgers along with tacos with the addition of tostadas.

  • Ed went on to become the founder of Del Taco.

  • Neal Baker of Baker Burgers also added Mexican food to his American menu, which is still prevalent today.

  • After opening two more Taco Tia locations as well as selling one franchise, Al wasn't comfortable with expanding, so Glenn sold his share of the partnership to Al and moved to Los Angeles with his family.
Taco Bell Blogger Event:  Lobby

  • Glen opens Taco Tia location on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, but it wasn't profitable.

  • Celebrity partnership with football players, Charley Toogood and Harland Svare as well as Phil Crosby, son of Bing Crosby, resulted in a new chain of restaurants called El Taco, with the first location opening in Long Beach.

  • Hired and then eventually fired due to a consultant's recommendation, John Galardi to run the restaurant commissary. John eventually got hired to work for Baker Burgers and with the help of both Glen and Neal Baker, he founded Der Wienerschnitzel.

  • Wishing to be independent and go out on his own, Glen eventually sold his interest in El Taco to his partners for what he put in, which was $10,000.00
  • Glen started the Taco Bell chain with a $4,000 investment and the first Taco Bell opened in Downey, CA.

  • By 1965, Glen owned 15 Taco Bells and in that same year, he sold the first Taco Bell franchise to Kermitt Bekke, who opened a Taco Bell in Torrance, CA.
Taco Bell Blogger Event:  Lobby
Taco Bell Blogger Event:  Lobby

Inside the Large Presentation Lab which included a Taco Bell kitchen, we were greeted by Kat, the Volcano Menu Product Manager and Meghan, who handled Food Innovations. The discussion started with a couple of points about spicy food in general.
  • Research had indicated a trend more towards spicy foods, but that consumers didn't want spiciness sacrificed for flavor or flavor sacrificed for spiciness. A balance needed to be reached.
  • Fast food is not perceived as spicy.
Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

The Volcano Taco which had launched initially on 05/18/2008 was quite successful with Taco Bell customers. Its key component was the Lava Sauce, which on the heat scale has 800 Scoville Heat Units. If you taste the Lava Sauce on its own, the heat will definitely hit your tastebuds. One thing to note about the Volcano Taco is that the red taco shell is red primarily to give you the visual cue that you will be eating a spicy food. Its redness is due to food coloring.

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

With the success of the Volcano Taco, it was decided to introduce it back to the Taco Bell menu and this time with the addition of the Volcano Burrito. There was also talk about a third Volcano menu item coming in August, so you'll have to stay tuned for that. As for the Volcano Burrito, that is definitely a meal in itself. The ingredients consist of double the beef, double the lava sauce, Mexican rice, sour cream, red tortilla strips and wrapped in a 12 inch tortilla. Depending on your appetite or you could share with a friend, you could even order the Volcano Box and get a regular taco, a Volcano taco, a Volcano burrito, churros and a drink. Bon appetit!

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Other interesting Taco Bell info include:
  • 70% of their business is due to drive thru customers.
  • Their Frutista Freeze drink line is modeled after the Mexican raspado. We sampled the Pina Colada Frutista, which is topped with pineapple.
  • The original, in-house name for their Crunchwrap was the Origami Tostado.
  • The calorie-conscious Fresco Menu features food where the cheese and sauces have been replaced by pico de gallo.
  • Employees are sent a daily email inviting them for a free lunch and feedback on new products that are being tested in their test kitchen.
Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Taco Bell

After the Volcano presentation, we were invited to go into the kitchen to try out some of the appliances, the kitchen tools and make our own food. One new addition is what they referred to as the Taco Tower where you could heat tortillas without frying them in 10 seconds, 5 seconds on each side.

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

What was interesting was the kitchen tools themselves. They were all manufactured to handle specific measurements of food, whether it's a spoonful of exactly 1.5 ounces of product a one once squirt of sauce from a squirt bottle or pump. It's almost no think food preparation. As long as you know what the exact measurements are for each food, you're good. By the way, I did a soft taco with deep fried potatoes, cheese, red tortilla chips, pico de gallo, cheese and hot sauce.

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Throughout our time there, we were allowed to ask questions. One question I had was that would they ever consider a Mexican sandwich like a torta as an addition to their menu. The reply was that they're always trying new things and that a torta has been considered; however, there are a lot of factors going into introducing new products. Namely, is it a product that can be accepted nationally (e.g. Middle America) and also is it a food that can be prepared fast and in an assembly line. Testing the market is why they do Limited Time Only (LTOs) menu items to see if something could sell on a more permanent basis. Apparently, they do 25-30 LTOs a year. That's how the Volcano Taco got its start, after all.

My time at the Taco Bell Headquarters was fun and interesting. While I'm not a Taco Bell regular, I can truly appreciate how one man's single vision and determination created a fast food taco empire. I can also appreciate the hard work, testing and marketing that goes into launching a new product, from the food scientists all the way to the marketing department. So thanks Taco Bell for this informative behind-the-scenes look at your company. I definitely learned a lot.

Taco Bell Blogger Event: Large Presentation Lab

Check out the other food bloggers in attendance below:

Endless Simmer
Epic Portions
Fast Food News
Food Beast
Grub Grade
Scott Roberts
So Good

By the way, as a promotion for their Why Pay More Value Menu, there is a Taco Bell Taco Truck doing a round trip from LA to St. Louis and back and will be giving away free tacos at stops along the way. To see where they are heading next, you can follow them on Twitter at @TacoBellTruck.

To see all the photos, go to:



mattatouille said...

Ironically I had Taco Bell for the first time in what seemed like years yesterday. The volcano burrito was respectable, but definitely not very high on the spice meter. I'd say a 1.5 out of 10. Interesting post, Abby.

pleasurepalate said...

Hey Matt. When I sampled the Volcano taco and the Volcano burrito at the presentation kitchen, it did have a little bit of a kick, but I think it could have much more. I'm not sure if they didn't put enough of the sauce or if all the other ingredients kind of dampened the heat, but when I took a couple of spoonfuls of the lava sauce on its own, the spice factor was definitely there.

Gastronomer said...

Your tours of fast food histories and facilities are so fascinating, and yet, so scary. Fast food scares the pants off me.

EatTravelEat said...

That must have been a very fun visit! I remember watching Taco Bell's facilities years ago on their test kitchen. They presented the food much differently than they do usually here. I never knew there was a special holder for tacos!