When Taco Bell Tried (And Failed) to Conquer Mexico

Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 1948, nearly 15 years before he founded Taco Bell, Glen Bell opened a hot dog stand called Bell's Drive-In in San Bernardino, California. It was Bell's first venture into the fast food industry, and it wasn’t a smash hit. Locals were far more interested in the Mexican restaurant across the street.

After watching customers line up to try the competing establishment’s signature hard-shell tacos—and convincing the owners to show him how to make them—Bell switched his focus to Mexican food and launched what would eventually become the world’s most successful taco chain.

Visit a Taco Bell today and you’ll see plenty of signs of Mexico’s influence, from the clay-tiled roofs and arched doorways to the Spanish words peppered throughout the menu. With more than 7000 locations across 30 countries—including Finland, Romania, Canada, and Japan—Taco Bell is some patrons' sole point of reference for Mexican cuisine.

The one notable place where Taco Bell has failed to catch on is in Mexico, a country with more than 350 KFCs and 400 McDonald's, which is located just 130 miles away from where Taco Bell was founded. This may not be a surprise to anyone who has ever dined in Mexico, where tacos are cheap, easily accessible, and aren’t typically made with mysterious ingredients. But these facts didn’t stop Taco Bell from trying to establish locations in Mexico not once, but twice—and failing miserably each time.

Starting Small

For its first effort to infiltrate the taco’s home territory, Taco Bell started small. Instead of opening a Spanish colonial-style brick-and-mortar store, the company launched a modest food cart in Mexico City in 1992. The 9-foot-long, heated buffet table was built inside a Kentucky Fried Chicken, as both chains were owned by PepsiCo at the time. Items Americans would have been familiar with were sold there, like nachos and burritos, but the Mexican menu was also different in a few major ways.

Taco Bell’s classic hard-shell tacos were nowhere to be seen; in their place were tacos bundled in soft corn or flour tortillas, much like those you'd find sold on the streets of Mexico City. Instead of a concoction of ground beef and taco seasoning, tortillas were either filled with shredded beef, pork, or chicken. The meats were imported frozen from the U.S., but the sauces and condiments were sourced locally in Mexico.

The attempt at authenticity didn't land with everyone. Georgina Gil, one of the stand's employees, told the Cox News Service shortly after Taco Bell opened, "Some [...] are a little offended. They get a serious look on their face and say things like 'How can Americans imagine they can come to sell tacos in the home of the taco?'"

Even if the quality was up to par, Taco Bell couldn’t compete with the prices of Mexico’s taqueros. An order of tacos and a small drink cost about 9500 pesos, or $3.25—definitely cheap, but still pricier than what was being sold from street carts at the time.

The food cart wasn’t the only Mexican location Taco Bell experimented with in the 1990s. The chain opened a handful of outposts next to KFCs in Mexico, but just two years after launching their standalone eateries, Taco Bell shuttered all of its Mexican shops in light of disappointing sales and a struggling economy.

Taco Takeover: Take Two

Even after this failed experiment, the fast food giant still had its sights set south of the border. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Taco Bell grew from a largely domestic chain to a global brand. By 2007, the company was operating 230 stores outside of the U.S., and that year—emboldened by its international success—the company decided to take a second crack at the Mexican market.

This time would be much different from the first attempt. Taco Bell executives now realized that their product couldn’t compete with local businesses on the authenticity front, so instead of ignoring the chain's American roots, the new restaurants would lean into it. Customers who walked into the new location in a shopping center parking lot outside Monterrey, Mexico, wouldn’t find pulled beef in soft tortillas on the menu; they could now order hard-shell tacos that were identical to the ones sold in the U.S. Now, though, they were called tacostadas, to make it clear they came on a crispy, tostada-like tortilla, unlike what Mexicans were used to with traditional tacos.

In addition to bringing over classics from the original menu, Taco Bell Mexico added a few new items to make the restaurant feel even more American. Years before the chain’s nacho fries debuted in the U.S., the Monterrey Taco Bell sold French fries topped with ground meat, cheese, cream, and tomatoes. Soft-serve ice cream was also available.

Fresh Approach, Sour Response

While stateside Taco Bells offered a fast-food interpretation of Mexican dishes that catered to American palates, Mexico's Taco Bell aimed to do the reverse. A half-page newspaper ad promoting the new store read: "One look alone is enough to tell that Taco Bell is not a 'taqueria.' It is a new fast-food alternative that does not pretend to be Mexican food."

A woman leaves a Taco Bell restaurant in Davie, Florida
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Despite the fresh approach, this unapologetic version of Taco Bell was just as much of a dud as the 1992 food stand. After sampling the fare, The Chicago Tribunes Latin America correspondent, Oscar Avila, wrote: “To scarf down a Fiesta Burrito in Mexico felt like patronizing a Panda Express at the foot of the Great Wall. You wouldn't think of chugging Natural Light at Oktoberfest in Munich. Or sneaking out of the Cannes Film Festival to catch Transformers.”

Taco Bell initially had plans to roll out 300 locations across Mexico, but the chain never expanded beyond Monterrey. The new location outlived the Mexico City stand, though not by very long: Taco Bell officially declared the store a failure three years after it opened and vacated Mexico a second time in 2010.

Numerous rejections from the only country whose opinions on tacos matter didn’t do much to hurt the Taco Bell brand, though. The company has been quick to adapt to the social media landscape and to tap into the Millennial base—two things that many other fast-food franchises have struggled with. Over the past five years, its system sales have grown by 33 percent, and the next step for the brand is aggressive growth on an international scale.

In May 2019, it announced plans to open 600 new locations in India alone and enter markets in Portugal and Indonesia for the first time. But Taco Bell has clearly learned its limits: Mexico is mentioned nowhere in the expansion strategy.

Why Isn't Fish Considered Meat During Lent?

AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images
AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images

For six Fridays each spring, Catholics observing Lent skip sirloin in favor of fish sticks and swap Big Macs for Filet-O-Fish. Why?

Legend has it that centuries ago a medieval pope with connections to Europe's fishing business banned red meat on Fridays to give his buddies' industry a boost. But that story isn't true. Sunday school teachers have a more theological answer: Jesus fasted for 40 days and died on a Friday. Catholics honor both occasions by making a small sacrifice: avoiding animal flesh one day out of the week. That explanation is dandy for a homily, but it doesn't explain why only red meat and poultry are targeted and seafood is fine.

For centuries, the reason evolved with the fast. In the beginning, some worshippers only ate bread. But by the Middle Ages, they were avoiding meat, eggs, and dairy. By the 13th century, the meat-fish divide was firmly established—and Saint Thomas Aquinas gave a lovely answer explaining why: sex, simplicity, and farts.

In Part II of his Summa Theologica, Aquinas wrote:

"Fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products."

Put differently, Aquinas thought fellow Catholics should abstain from eating land-locked animals because they were too darn tasty. Lent was a time for simplicity, and he suggested that everyone tone it down. It makes sense. In the 1200s, meat was a luxury. Eating something as decadent as beef was no way to celebrate a holiday centered on modesty. But Aquinas had another reason, too: He believed meat made you horny.

"For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods."

There you have it. You can now blame those impure thoughts on a beef patty. (Aquinas might have had it backwards though. According to the American Dietetic Association, red meat doesn't boost "seminal matter." Men trying to increase their sperm count are generally advised to cut back on meat. However, red meat does improve testosterone levels, so it's give-and-take.)

Aquinas gave a third reason to avoid meat: it won't give you gas. "Those who fast," Aquinas wrote, "are forbidden the use of flesh meat rather than of wine or vegetables, which are flatulent foods." Aquinas argued that "flatulent foods" gave your "vital spirit" a quick pick-me-up. Meat, on the other hand, boosts the body's long-lasting, lustful humors—a religious no-no.

But why isn't fish considered meat?

The reason is foggy. Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, for one, has been used to justify fasting rules. Paul wrote, " … There is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fish, and another of birds" (15:39). That distinction was possibly taken from Judaism's own dietary restrictions, which separates fleishig (which includes land-locked mammals and fowl) from pareve (which includes fish). Neither the Torah, Talmud, or New Testament clearly explains the rationale behind the divide.

It's arbitrary, anyway. In the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec ruled that beavers were fish. In Latin America, it's OK to eat capybara, as the largest living rodent is apparently also a fish on Lenten Fridays. Churchgoers around Detroit can guiltlessly munch on muskrat every Friday. And in 2010, the Archbishop of New Orleans gave alligator the thumbs up when he declared, “Alligator is considered in the fish family."

Thanks to King Henry VIII and Martin Luther, Protestants don't have to worry about their diet. When Henry ruled, fish was one of England's most popular dishes. But when the Church refused to grant the King a divorce, he broke from the Church. Consuming fish became a pro-Catholic political statement. Anglicans and the King's sympathizers made it a point to eat meat on Fridays. Around that same time, Martin Luther declared that fasting was up to the individual, not the Church. Those attitudes hurt England's fishing industry so much that, in 1547, Henry's son King Edward VI—who was just 10 at the time—tried to reinstate the fast to improve the country's fishing economy. Some Anglicans picked the practice back up, but Protestants—who were strongest in Continental Europe—didn't need to take the bait.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story was updated in 2020.

Wine Isn't for Everyone—but Wine Soap Might Be

These wine soaps are made to smell like chardonnay, cabernet, pinot noir, and pinot grigio.
These wine soaps are made to smell like chardonnay, cabernet, pinot noir, and pinot grigio.
UncommonGoods

A bottle of wine is often a nice offering for a friend or party host, but the etiquette of gifting wine can be tricky, especially among non-drinkers. If you’re looking for a memorable gift that doesn’t come with a set of murky rules, consider this set of four wine soaps instead, which is available for $30 from UncommonGoods.

All four soaps are handmade in Monroe, Georgia, from natural ingredients like olive oil, coconut, cocoa butter, and mica. While they don’t contain any actual wine, each bar of soap is inspired by a popular variety of red or white wine—“chardonnay” smells like citrus, while “pinot noir” contains hints of berries, plums, and apples.

Creator Heather Swanepoel told UncommonGoods she was inspired to create the wine-scented soaps when she was invited to the EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival at Walt Disney World. “I wanted to make sure to wow the guests and give them no reason to doubt why we were there,” she said.

If wine isn’t your thing, Swanepoel also sells scented soap inspired by flowers, chocolate, and beer.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER