Taco Bell

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Taco Bell

17901 Von Karman
Irvine, California 92714
(714) 863-4500
Fax: (714) 863-2214

Wholly Owned Subsidiary of PepsiCo Inc..
Incorporated: 1962
Employees: 70,000
Sales: $3.3 billion
SICs: 5812 Eating Places; 6794 Patent Owners & Lessors

Taco Bell is a California-based fast service restaurant chain that specializes in Mexican-style fast food. Taco Bell currently holdswith 1992 sales in the U.S. of $3.3 billion dollarsa 68 percent share of the U.S. Mexican-style restaurant market. The fast food chain is today part of the giant PepsiCo empire, a far cry from its modest beginnings as a hot dog stand.

In 1946 Glen Bell, a World War II veteran, opened a hot dog stand in San Bernardino, California. The 23-year-old Bell decided to start his own business after working for a local gas company and a railroad system. After selling a gas refrigerator bought at a discount from the gas company for $400, Bell invested the money in securing a lease for the food stand site and for buying building materials. Confident that the post-war economy would support his endeavor, Bells Drive In opened its shutters for business later that year.

Bell began unassumingly, remaining a one-person operation and serving only take-out food. His first day of business brought in $20 over a 16-hour day. Working long hoursthe stands hours of operation extended from 9 am to midnighthe eventually averaged $150 a day in business during his first year.

In 1952 Bell sold his first stand and set about building an improved version. His new menu comprised hamburgers and hot dogs, then staples of the emerging fast food industry. Coincidentally, just as Bell built his second stand, the McDonald brothers were building their first fast food restaurant, also in San Bernardino. By 1955 Ray Kroc, a traveling salesman touting milk shake machines, would link up with the McDonald brothers and form the giant McDonalds hamburger chain.

The phenomenal worldwide success of the McDonalds restaurant chain would come later. But its successful beginnings in San Bernardino were enough to prompt Bell to find a niche in the fledgling Mexican-style food business. He settled on selling tacos by volume, rather than making and stuffing them individually as was the case in full-service restaurants. As Bell later noted in a 1978 speech to a Taco Bell franchise convention, My plan for experimenting with tacos was to obtain a location in a Mexican neighborhood. That way, if tacos were successful, potential competitors would write it off to the location and assume that the idea wouldnt sell anywhere else.

After choosing a location in a Mexican neighborhood of San Bernardino, Bell began selling a chili dog from which he eventually developed his traditional taco sauce. He also developed taco shells that could be easily and quickly fried and later stuffed with ingredients. This stand was so small that Bell sold his first tacos at 19 cents each from a window on the side.

In 1953 a second stand was opened in Barstow, near San Bernardino. Tacos sold well in that locale as well, and Bell recruited Ed Hackbarth to run the stand. A year later, Bell began the construction of three Taco Tia stands in San Bernardino, Redlands, and Riverside. When the new stores were completed a year later, Bell achieved $18,000 in sales in his first month.

A small commissary was soon built to serve the three Taco Tia outlets and three other Bells Drive Ins outlets. Here vegetables were prepared daily, as were deep taco shells and sauces. To maintain freshness, meat was cooked at the individual restaurants.

In 1956 Bell sold his three Taco Tia restaurants to fund his expansion into the Los Angeles restaurant market. A recessionary economic atmosphere, however, drove up construction costs. Bell eventually went into partnership with four members of the Los Angeles Rams professional football team to reduce his start-up risk. In 1958 they formed the El Taco restaurant chain, which included a central commissary to serve up to 100 units. Three outlets were initially opened, producing profits of $3,000 after the first year of business.

Bell wanted to remain independent, however, so in 1962 he yet again sold his share in a successful restaurant chain and, a year later, opened the first Taco Bell outlet in Downey. Eight more outlets were built in the Long Beach, Paramount, and Los Angeles regions.

During this period the concept of franchising was developing, first with car dealerships and then throughout the restaurant industry. Bell quickly seized on the idea. In 1964 Kermit Becky, a former Los Angeles policeman, purchased the first Taco Bell franchise in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. Other franchise buyers followed.

In 1965 Bell hired Robert McKay as general manager of the company to help franchise Taco Bell. McKay would later recall the challenge before him in Forbes: ... franchising was really hot. Everyone wanted franchises in the mid-sixties. Then came the shakeout a few years later and franchising no longer was the easy game it once was. A year later, the Taco Bell chain went public on the Pacific Stock Exchange, enabling Bell to receive bank financing for the first time. Previously, all financing had been secured on a private basis. (The first Taco Bell was opened with 40 shares, each worth $100 and held mostly by Bells family.)

In 1967 McKay was named president of Taco Bell. At that point in time the company owned 12 restaurants, with an additional 325 franchises. By 1970 Taco Bell had become a $6 million operation, producing annual profits of approximately $150,000. The fast food chains success soon drew the attention of PepsiCo Inc., the snack food and soft drinks giant, which was seeking to diversify into the restaurant business.

In 1975 Pizza Hut, then a subsidiary of PepsiCo, launched Taco Kid, a Mexican food concept to challenge Taco Bell. The launch failed, and Pizza Hut soon had to write off its investment. PepsiCo altered its strategy and began wooing Glen Bell in order to buy Taco Bell outright. In February 1978 a deal was struck in which the Mexican fast food chain was purchased for just under $125 million in stock.

PepsiCos strategy in acquiring Taco Bell was simple: the fast food chain dominated the Mexican food market, so PepsiCo was buying market share. For PepsiCo the challenge was to make Taco Bell less a regional ethnic food phenomenon and more a national fast food chain. Glen Bell had originally sought to set Taco Bell apart from other fast food chains, McDonalds in particular, and its preeminent position among other Mexican food chains, most all of them regional or local rivals, was already secure.

PepsiCos decision to reposition Taco Bell was a challenge to the fast food giants on a national scale. The PepsiCo strategy emphasized that Taco Bell outlets would sport spartan simplicity in decor and menu, with a concentration on predictable quality, affordable prices, and clean and convenient surroundings. Taco Bell also moved swiftly to redesign the company logo. The old logo, a Mexican dozing under a giant sombrero, was replaced by a sparkling bell atop the company name. As Larry Higby, senior vice-president of marketing at Taco Bell, noted in Advertising Age: Usually when you try to turn something around, you look to develop breakthrough advertising. But we came to exactly the opposite conclusion: we needed to look more mainstream.

The strategy worked. Taco Bell grew rapidly during the early 1980s. By 1983, when John E. Martin took over as president, the chain had 1,600 outlets in 47 U.S. states, producing a total of $918 million in sales. The average Taco Bell franchise claimed sales of $680,000 that year, a significant increase over the franchise average of $325,000 in sales only three years earlier. As a measure of market strength, Taco Bells nearest rival in the Mexican fast food segment was Naugles, a California-based chain with only 160 outlets and 1983 sales of $84 million.

A 1985 advertising campaign typified the companys mainstream approach. The TV spots stressed that Taco Bell offered the same ingredients as its burger rivals: beef, cheese, and tomatoes. It simply served the ingredients up in a different and, according to the company, more satisfying way. The campaigns tag-line, Just Made for You, reminded consumers that more than 60 percent of Taco Bell products were custom-made and that no dish was prepared until it was ordered to ensure freshness. By 1986 Taco Bell had grown to 2,400 outlets with just over $1.4 billion in sales. TV advertising that year called Taco Bell the cure for the common meal, a pointed allusion to the staple foods offered by its competitors.

New Taco Bell outlets were also different from earlier models. The traditional arched windows and red-tile roofs were retained, but with the addition of exterior stucco. Interiors featured skylights, silk plants, and light-colored wood. New dishes, like seafood salad and grilled chicken, were added to menus, and drive-through windows became a standard feature.

In 1986, Taco Bell expanded overseas by opening a restaurant in London, England. Two years later, Taco Bell made widespread pricing and production changes. The resulting lower price of many of the items on the Taco Bell menu forced rival hamburger chains to follow suit. On the production side, Taco Bell began contracting out much of its food preparationthe dicing and slicing, the frying of taco shellsto get the kitchen out of the restaurant. Just-in-time inventory controls were added to all outlets, resulting in reduced overhead costs. Electronic information systems installed in all Taco Bell outlets cut down significantly on management paperwork. Staff responsibilities changed as well, as Taco Bell reversed the 70 percent kitchen and 30 percent dining room ratio in all its outlets. As Zane Leshner, the companys senior vice president for operations, commented in Financial World in 1991: We no longer dedicate an awful lot of labor and space to doing things that have no customer value at all.

The strategy paid dividends for Taco Bell. The streamlining steps enabled the Mexican fast food chain to raise its profits by 25 percent annually during the late 1980s at a time when it was sharply dropping its prices.

The companys success, coming at a time when the late 1980s recession led to savage price-cutting and cutthroat competition in the fast food industry, impressed industry analysts. A 1991 article in the Harvard Business Review named Taco Bell as the best performer in the fast food industry at the time, surpassing traditional market leader McDonalds. The authors wrote: If McDonalds is the epitome of the old industrialized service model, Taco Bell represents the new, redesigned model in many important respects.

To keep customers focused on Taco Bells menu, the company in 1991 introduced a three-tiered value menu. Most products on the menufrom original tacos and bean burritos to cinnamon twistswould be sold at three main price levels: 590, 790, and 990. In addition, new menu items introduced in 1991 included steak burritos to lure dinner customers and a test breakfast menu. These changes helped the company to achieve 60 percent more sales in 1991 than two years earlier.

New Taco Bell outlets were also being added to the companys stable. The number had grown from 2,193 units in 1985 to 3,273 in 1990, marking an annual growth rate of 8.3 percent. In 1992 Taco Bell opened outlets in Aruba, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, bringing the number of international locations to 11. In the United States, Taco Bell opened outlets in airports, business cafeterias, and sports stadiums. The strategy called for the company to become more than a restaurant chain: Taco Bell now hoped to be regarded as a taco distribution company.

Taco Bell has maintained its footing through the early 1990s recession, although its fast food rivals are certain to fight back. In addition, as Mexican food grows in popularity, other Mexican chains are certain to challenge Taco Bell and its 68 percent market share, attained in 1992.

However, Taco Bell has grown into a formidable force in the restaurant business, and its current economic and organizational health indicates that it is likely to remain a major player in the fast food wars for some time to come.

Principal Subsidiaries

Taco Bell Worldwide.

Further Reading

Bell, Glen, Getting Here, 1978 speech to franchise convention, Irvine, CA, Taco Bell Inc.; A Promising Mañana, Forbes, August 1, 1977; Taco Bell Secures Fast-Food Presence Advertising Age, July 16, 1984; Taco Bell Wants to Take a Bite Out of Burgers Business Week, August 8, 1986; Restaurants without Kitchens Financial World, November 26, 1991; Schlesinger, Leonard, and James Heskett, The Service-Driven Service Company, Harvard Business Review, September-October, 1991.

Etan Vlessing