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."

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.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

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Apple

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Sony

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20 Fall Harvest Words and Their Origins

Allie/Unsplash
Allie/Unsplash

Thanksgiving originated as a way to celebrate, and enjoy, all the fruits and vegetables harvested this time of year. But the fall harvest doesn’t let word lovers go hungry: it yields a cornucopia of etymological roots as well. Feast on the bounty of these seasonal word origins.

1. Artichoke

Artichoke ultimately comes from the Arabic al-harshuf, “the artichoke.” The word, and plant, passed into Spanish, Italian, and then English, as archicokk, in the 1530s. Speakers tried to explain its unusual name with folk etymologies: The plant’s center would choke anyone who tried to eat it, or it chokes the growth of other plants in the garden. These folk beliefs are preserved in the modern spelling.

2. and 3. Scallion and Shallot

Scallions and shallots may be two different species of onion, but they share a common root: the Vulgar Latin cepa escalonia, the “Ascalonian onion.” Ascalon is modern-day Ashkelon, an Israeli coastal city and a historically important seaport, apparently, for trading the likes of scallions and shallots. The Latin cepa, for onion, is also the source of another name for the scallion, chive.

4. Onion

If we peel back the etymological layers of onion, we find the Latin unio, which named both a pearl and a type of onion. Unio probably sprouts from unus, Latin for “one,” the idea being that this vegetable’s layers all comprise a single whole.

5. Fennel

Fennel looks like an onion, but it’s actually in the carrot family. Appearances, though, are still the key to the origin of this word. Fennel, which is documented in English as early as 700, comes from a diminutive form of Latin faenum, for hay, which the plant’s feathery foliage and aroma evokes.

6. Carrot

Speaking of carrots, this orange vegetable is rooted in the Greek karaton. The origin of the Greek word is unclear. It could be from an Indo-European root ker, for horn, thanks to its shape. Ker could also mean head, possibly alluding to the way the carrot grows—and making a red-headed carrot-top etymologically redundant.

7., 8., 9., and 10. Kale, Collard, Kohlrabi, and Cauliflower

These seasonal superfoods have a super-etymology. Latin had a word caulis, for stem, stalk, or cabbage, which produced quite the lexical bumper crop.

Old Norse borrowed caulis as kal, source of the word kale and the cole in coleslaw. In English, cole itself was an old word for cabbage as well as other leafy greens, like colewort, which American English speakers came to pronounce as collard, hence collard greens.

Kohlrabi literally means “cabbage-turnip” in German, cultivating its kohl from an Italian descendant of the original Latin caulis. And cauliflower, from Modern Latin cauliflora, is simply “cabbage flower.”

11. Cabbage

If Latin’s caulis means cabbage, what does cabbage mean? Head, from the Old French caboce, in turn from the Latin caput. It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand why the Romans so named this heavy and round vegetable.

12. Turnip

A turnip is a neep that looks like its been “turned” into its round shape, or so some etymologists guess. Neep comes from the Latin napus, a kind of turnip.

13. Parsnip

This vegetable was once believed to be a kind of turnip, and so was made to look like turnip as a word. (The parsnip is actually related to the carrot while the turnip is related to the cabbage.) Parsnip stems from pastinaca, the Latin name for the vegetable, which may be related to pastinum, a two-pronged tool used to harvest tubers like parsnips.

14. and 15. Radish and Rutabaga

The roots of these roots are “roots.” Radish comes from the Latin radix, a root, both botanically and metaphorically, as we can see in derivatives like radical and eradicate. This radix, according to Indo-European scholars, grows from a more ancient soil: wrad, believed to mean root or branch. Wrad is featured in another vegetal word: rutabaga, which English took from the Swedish rotabagge by the 1780s. Rotabagge literally means “root bag,” with bag a kind of bundle in Old Norse.

16. and 17. Pumpkin and Squash

If you thought turnips and parsnips were all mixed up, then have a look at pumpkin. English immediately carved pumpkin out of French and Latin roots. The word’s ending, -kin, is influenced by a Germanic suffix for "little," also seen in words like napkin. The ultimate root is the Greek pepon, meaning “ripe” and related to its verb for "cook."

A Greek pepon was a kind of melon enjoyed when ripe. And the word melon, squashed from the Greek melopepon, literally means “ripe apple.” So, etymologically, a pumpkin is a melon, which is an apple. Early British colonists applied the word pumpkin—which, to make things more confusing, is technically a fruit—for the type of squash they encountered in the Americas.

Squash has nothing to do with smashing pumpkins. The word is shortened from the Algonquian askutasquash, literally “green things that may be eaten raw,” as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology glosses it.

18. Potato

You say potato, I say batata. Christopher Columbus is said to have brought the word batata back from his voyages. The batata, probably from the Haitian Taíno language, was actually a kind of sweet potato. Later, Spanish conquistadors brought what we commonly think of as the potato back from South America, where it was called papa in the Quechuan language. Botanically, sweet potatoes and potatoes are completely unrelated, but that didn’t stop English speakers from confusing them by using the word potato as a common term.

19. Yam

Sweet potatoes aren’t a type of potato—and nor are they yams, even if we insist on calling them so. Yam crops up as inany in 1588, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a borrowing of the Portuguese inhame or Spanish igname, possibly from a word in West African languages meaning “to eat.” Because of the slave trade, yam may have been directly borrowed from a West African language in American and Jamaican English.

20. Beet

Beet comes from the Old English bete, in turn from the Latin beta. These words just mean, for a refreshing change, beet. But even the humble beet has its baggage. The word was common in Old English but disappeared from the existing record until about the 1400s. It seems the English language didn’t much want to eat its vegetables in the late Middle Ages.