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.

10 Frank Facts About the Wienermobile

Business Wire
Business Wire

This year marks the 83rd anniversary of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, that effortlessly charming, street-legal marketing tool on wheels. The next time you’re in the vicinity of one—a fleet of six makes up to 1400 stops annually—take the time to reflect on the past, present, and future of history’s most famous locomoting hot dog.

1. The Wienermobile started as a kind of land sub. 


Oscar Mayer

In 1936, Carl Mayer, nephew of hot dog scion Oscar Mayer, suggested a marketing idea to his uncle: build a 13-foot-long mobile hot dog and cruise around the Chicago area handing out his “German wieners” to stunned pedestrians. Crafted from a metal chassis, the vehicle was operated by Carl, who could usually be seen with his torso sticking out from the cockpit.

2. The Wienermobile was once driven by "Little Oscar."

Throughout the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, Oscar Mayer enlisted various little people to portray “Little Oscar,” a company mascot sporting a chef’s hat. Little Oscar soon assumed piloting duties for the Wienermobile, waving to crowds and dispensing wiener whistles that kids could use to alert other children to the presence of the car in their neighborhood. Performer George Malchan portrayed the character from 1951 to 1987.

3. The Wienermobile disappeared for decades.

While novelty automobiles were all the rage circa World War II, Oscar Mayer saw interest wane in the 1960s and 1970s, as kitsch gave way to more contemporary advertising campaigns. But when the company put a Wiener back on the road for its 50th anniversary in 1986, they discovered a whole generation of consumers who were nostalgic for the car. The company ordered six new models in 1988.

4. Wienermobile drivers train at Hot Dog High.

Since resurrecting the marketing campaign, Oscar Mayer has trained aspiring Wienermobile drivers at Hot Dog High in Madison, Wisconsin. The company receives 1000 to 1500 applications for the 12 available positions annually, typically from college graduates looking for a road trip experience. Those selected for duty are given 40 hours of instruction and assigned a different region of the country. The company tracks their routes with a GPS.

5. Wienermobile passengers ride "shotbun."

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Wienermobile motorists—a.k.a. Hotdoggers—typically ride in pairs, with the driver keeping an eye on the road and the passenger acknowledging and waving to passersby who want to interact with the vehicle. This is known as riding “shotbun,” and the greetings are mandatory. Some occupants have reported that even after going off-duty, they’ll keep waving to other drivers out of habit.

6. The Wienermobile interior is just as delicious.

Wienermobile fans who are invited to board—and promise to fasten their “meat belts” before rolling—are treated to a rare peek inside the vehicle’s interior. Ketchup- and mustard-colored upholstery surround the six seats, with condiment "stains" dotting the floor; for parades, occupants can wave from the “bunroof.” Two accent hot dogs are parked on the dashboard.

7. The Wienermobile once crashed into a house.

Though it can be challenging to pilot an enormous hot dog, most Wienermobiles log mileage without incident. A rare exception: a 2009 accident near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when a driver attempted to back the vehicle out of a residential driveway, thought she was in reverse, but shot forward and bored into an unoccupied home.

8. Al Unser Jr. drove the Wienermobile for laps at the Indy 500.

While one might expect the Wienermobile to have the handling of a tube-shaped camper, some models were surprisingly nimble. Race car driver Al Unser Jr. took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1988 and drove it for laps. The dog reached an impressive 110 miles per hour.

9. There's a version of the Wienermobile called a "Wienie-Bago."

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile WIENIE-BAGO
Oscar Mayer

Super Bowl attendees who couldn’t snag a hotel room in San Francisco for the 2016 showdown between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos had a pork-based solution: Oscar Mayer auctioned off two nights in their Wienie-Bago, an RV that sleeps four. Missed it? If you're in Chicago, you can rent a Wienermobile that sleeps two for $136 a night. A bed, outdoor dining area, and a fridge stocked with hot dogs are all included.

10. You can buy a miniature Wienermobile.

For the 2015 gift-giving season, Oscar Mayer issued a limited-edition, remote-controlled version of the Wienermobile. The 22.5-inch-long mini-dog sent collectors scrambling on Cyber Monday, when the company released just 20 for purchase at a time. The Rover is able to hold two hot dogs for transport across picnic tables. You can still find them on eBay.

Autumnal Dessert Spices and Cubed Meat Collide: Pumpkin Spice SPAM Now Exists

David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

Does sipping on a pumpkin spice latte ever make you think: “Man, I wish this were cubed meat”? Soon, it will be. According to NBC News, Hormel will start selling Pumpkin Spice SPAM on September 23.

It all started back in October of 2017, when Hormel announced via its Facebook page that pumpkin spice SPAM was coming—as a joke. The post clearly stated that it wasn’t real, but that didn’t stop scores of people from making comments about how it would probably taste delicious and asking where they could purchase a can.

Now, a Hormel publicist has confirmed to NBC News that the limited-edition, fall-themed flavor will soon be available to order online from Walmart or Spam.com.

"True to the brand’s roots, SPAM Pumpkin Spice combines deliciousness with creativity, allowing the latest variety to be incorporated into a number of dishes, from on-trend brunch recipes to an easy, pick-me-up snack,” Hormel told NBC News.

While Pumpkin Spice SPAM might not yet be accepted into pumpkin spice canon alongside lattes and muffins, it’s far from the strangest product that has been imbued with the mysterious, cinnamon-y spice blend to date; we’ll leave automotive exhaust spray and light bulbs to duke it out for that designation. And the Facebook commenters might have actually been onto something when they dared to suggest that Pumpkin Spice SPAM had palatal potential. After all, ham recipes often include sweet ingredients like maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey. And, according to TIME, the word spam was invented as a portmanteau of spiced ham.

Wondering what other SPAM innovations you might be missing out on? Check out these recipes from around the world.

[h/t NBC News]

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