Glen Bell, founder of Taco Bell, passed away on Saturday, January 16. He was 86 years old.
Bell, a fan of Mexican-style food, created the taco and popularized it in America. Taco Bell, the company he is most famous for, is now part of Yum! Brands. Yum! is also the parent company of A&W, KFC, Long John Silver's, Pizza Hut and Wing Street. Yum! Brands itself was spun off from PepsiCo in 1997 as Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc.
Glen was born in 1923 in Lynwood, California. He had a hardscrabble childhood and youth during the Depression years. He joined the Marines in 1943 and was sent to Guadacanal and Guam during WWII and was stationed in China shortly after the War ended. All were locations, where, at the time, the world turned, and history was being made. Glen was a waiter serving top military brass.
Returning to the States from China, he married Dorothy Taylor in 1947.
In 1948, he opened his first restaurant, Bell’s Drive-In in San Bernardino, California, beginning by selling hot dogs and hamburgers. To people who know their franchise history even cursorily, the town will likely immediately ring a bell. The McDonald brothers had a hamburger stand there, and Glen and his San Bernardino High School chum, Neal Baker, had closely studied their operation. Neal went on to found his own restaurant, Baker’s.
Glen soon wanted to set his menu apart from the competition by adding Mexican fare. His first taco customer made a lasting impression on Glen: he watched as sauce dripped down the man's sleeve and tie. But the customer surprised Glen by coming back for more. Still, Glen realized that he needed a convenient way to serve tacos to go. He also worked on developing a drive-thru concept.
Glen and Dorothy were divorced in 1953. She had insisted that Mexican food was a waste of time and one can surmise that their differences were a major strain on the marriage, although one might have to read the book Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story to learn more. Eleven Amazon customers have given it an average rating of four stars.
One of the book’s Amazon reviewers gives a glimpse into the difficult times that Glen and other entrepreneurs often have to go through. Ned Hopkins writes that in 1957 he got a job at Taco Tia, a small chain that Glen had built with a business partner. The location, Glen’s sixth Taco Tia, which was across the street from Pasadena City College and a high school, was a disappointment from the beginning, Ned writes. He doubts that it was ever profitable. Glen had planned for repeat business from the nearby students, but most of them brought their lunches from home or ate at the school cafeteria.
Ned recounts Glen pinning his hopes on tremendous business one New Year’s Day. The Pasadena Rose Day Parade was to pass right in front of his restaurant. Anticipating exceptional business from a hungry mob, he had stocked four to five times the normal amount of food.
Opening at 6 in the morning, there was a huge crowd outside already. By 10 a.m. they had served four customers, three of them wanting just coffee. Ned recalls that at the end of the day his sense was that they had served fewer people than on a normal day. Glen had to scramble to unload the perishables he had to his other locations or to sell them to other restaurants.
Ned says he wasn’t surprised when he returned a few years later to find that the Taco Tia had become an Orange Julius. Moving on to some other part of the world for a few more years, Ned thought that Glen had realized that Mexican food was a losing proposition. When he returned in the late 1960s, he was astonished to find Taco Bells all over the place.
Ned says the book explains why: it was Glen’s work ethic. Glen spent all day on Saturdays and at least one or two weekdays at the failing location. His second wife Martha (Marty), whom he had married in 1955, was usually with him, working.
Because Bell and his partner differed in their vision for Taco Tia, Bell sold his interest. With another group of partners, he founded El Tacos in the Long Beach area. It spread throughout the state and was a financial success. Ready to strike out on his own, Glen sold his interest to his partners.
In 1961 Glen started Der Wienerschnitzel together with an employee, John Galardi. John later built it into his own chain. Another employee, John Hackbarth, went on to establish his own drive-in, which later became the Del Taco franchise chain.
Taco Bell was founded in 1962 in Downey, California. Glen quickly expanded to eight units in and around the Los Angeles area and sold his first Taco Bell franchise in 1964. By 1978 there were 878 Taco Bells, which Glen sold to PepsiCo for $125 million in stock.
About that time he fell in love with Valley Center, a farming community that reminded him of the San Bernardino area of his youth. There he eventually established Bell Gardens, a 115-acre model produce farm and landscaped park that was open to the public. Bell Gardens provided educational programs that stressed the importance of agriculture and how to preserve natural resources. On its grounds were creek beds, walking trails, cultivated fields and spacious lawns for afternoon picnics. Visitors were able to enjoy farm-related activities and workshops, as well as to buy fresh produce. Rides included a tractor-pulled hay wagon and quarter-scale train. It closed in 2003.
When Glen passed away on Saturday, he left behind his wife and partner of 54 years, Marty; his children: Kathleen, Gary and Rex; and four grandchildren.