When Taco Bell Tried (And Failed) to Conquer Mexico
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.
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."
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 Tribune’s 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.