In the big business of the fast-food industry, some classics are untouchable - the Big Mac, the Whopper, the Stuffed Crust Pizza - but countless other items come and go like the wind. These are the items you faintly remember, but not quite enough to protest for a return to the menu. Fast-food restaurants, like all other businesses, are in a constant state of revival and reinvention. Taco Bell is no different and has purged countless beloved dishes to remain relevant.
Tracing Taco Bell's menu from the brand's origins to today illustrates not just how the company has changed with the times, but also the ever-shifting tastes of American fast-food consumers.
The Crunchy Taco Era
Taco Bell launched in 1962, the brainchild of entrepreneur Glen Bell. His first location, in Downey, CA, was inspired by (or some might say was a complete rip-off of) popular Mexican taco stands around Southern California. Bell had tried numerous other fast-food concepts in his quest for financial success: four hamburger stands and two taquerias. All failed to catch on, but Taco Bell would be his crowning achievement thanks to one special menu item: the hard-shell taco.
Like McDonald's before it, Taco Bell thrived not just because the chain had good food, but also because it had mastered the technology around quick, efficient service. Bell developed a process for streamlining the creation of the fried, crunchy taco shell, giving his store the ability to sell more tacos per day and to eventually expand into multiple locations.
The hard-shell taco was the star of the original, sparse Taco Bell menu. In the beginning, everything was priced at 19 cents. Because this was the first time many Americans had tried Mexican food, simplicity was probably for the best. Burritos with red sauce or green sauce, a tostada (called a "tostado" at the time), the classic taco, a cup of beans, and a chili burger were the only items available. That would be enough to launch Taco Bell into the fast-food stratosphere.
The Bell Beefer And Nationwide Expansion
Taco Bell's expansion was swift. The first franchise opened in Torrance, CA, in 1964. By 1967, there were 100 Taco Bell locations. In 1978, PepsiCo purchased Taco Bell, making Glen Bell a very rich man. Since then, the now-global chain has served Pepsi products, which sets it apart from competitors that carry Coca-Cola.
Nationwide expansion meant Taco Bell's menu would expand, as well. Prior to the PepsiCo purchase, Taco Bell franchises served a peculiar product called the "Bellburger," which replaced the chili burger on the menu. The Bellburger was taco meat on a hamburger bun. In a sense, the Bellburger was a sloppy Joe, but with Taco Bell hot sauce.
In the PepsiCo era, the Bellburger was reimagined and rebranded as the Bell Beefer, an effort to cut into the market share of Taco Bell's various burger-oriented competitors. Though a cult classic during the '70s and '80s, the Bell Beefer didn't make it to the 1990s.
The Golden Era
For many Taco Bell fans, the 1980s and 1990s represent the apex of Taco Bell's history. Innovation was key as the menu ballooned to include all manner of nontraditional creations. The beloved Enchirito was introduced in this period, which made clever use of ingredients Taco Bell franchises already had on hand. The Enchirito was nothing more than a wet beef burrito, but the novelty of a gooey burrito you had to eat with a fork and knife was enough to make it a big hit.
Taco Bell got into dessert with Cinnamon Crispas, a forerunner to the classic Cinnamon Twists. Again, Taco Bell cleverly repurposed common ingredients, sprinkling cinnamon and sugar on its chips. Nachos, taco salads, and the oversized Taco Bell Grande were all introduced in the 1980s, as well.
Very briefly, Taco Bell tried a truly incongruous item: a seafood salad. This taco salad featured shrimp, whitefish, and snow crab - an option for observant Catholics who chose not to eat meat during Lent. Taco Bell also came up with Mexican Pizza, which was neither particularly Mexican nor a pizza. In essence, it's two tostadas on top of each other. That simplicity of concept has kept the Mexican Pizza on the menu for decades.
Like so many other fast-food chains, Taco Bell got into the movie tie-in game, selling promotional glasses for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
By the 1990s, Taco Bell began experimenting with the popular fast-food trend of value pricing, in which a special subsection of the menu is carved out for lower-cost, smaller items to ideally be bought in large quantities by customers. Taco Bell not only had its popular 99-cent value menu, but also ran more extreme promotions, such as 45-cent tacos, to drive consumer demand.
The company also launched the 7-Layer Burrito in 1993, ushering in one of its most popular vegetarian items ever, doing everything the seafood salad tried to do, but better.
Breakfast Crunchwraps, Double Deckers, And The Era Of Excess
Fast food in the early 21st century was defined by a race to see which brands could devise the most absurd and delicious gimmicks. Taco Bell, which debuted its popular Chihuahua mascot at this time, led the way, abandoning any remaining pretense of serving traditional Mexican fare and emphasizing bizarre Frankenstein-style mash-ups. The Double Decker Taco was a soft flour tortilla over a hard-shell taco, joined at the proverbial hip by a gooey cheese substance. It started as a limited-run item in the mid-'90s and became a permanent addition to the menu the following decade.
The idea of the "limited time only" item only increased the novelty of these creations. Taking a cue from McDonald's and its successful strategy of bringing the McRib back seasonally, Taco Bell found that the demand for the Double Decker was driven partially by scarcity. The company used a similar rollout strategy for the Crunchwrap Supreme, a 2005 addition that was a hexagonal-shaped tortilla over a crunchy shell with standard taco ingredients inside.
By the second decade of the century, the floodgates were open to all manner of high-concept items: Doritos Locos Tacos, Nacho Fries, Cheesy Gordita Crunches, Chalupas, Grilled Stuft Burritos, Black Jack Tacos, Breakfast Crunchwraps, Waffle Tacos, Volcano Tacos, and more. For over a decade, Taco Bell topped itself over and over again, redefining what fast food could be.