In 1951, Glen Bell (September 3, 1923 – January 16, 2010) put a sign outside his hamburger stand in San Bernardino that read “Tacos nine-teen cents”. He had no idea if anyone would buy them. Glen Bell is the founder of Taco Bell and is considered one of the pioneers of the fast food industry.
Let me tell you Glen Bell’s incredible story of perseverance.
Glen decided to open up his hamburger stand in 1947 after he witnessed Mac and Dick McDonald’s success with their original McDonald’s restaurant. This was six years prior to Ray Kroc partnering with the McDonald brothers and expanding the concept nationwide.
Glen’s hamburger stand in San Bernardino was four miles down the road from the original McDonald’s. Glen would analyze and watch the McDonald’s operation and he would iterate on their best ideas.
But Glen was poor. The McDonald’s brothers were successful by the late 1940’s. Glen said, “You could look in the carport behind the restaurant and see their new Cadillacs.” The brothers also shared a twenty-five room mansion.
Back in the 1940’s there was no such thing as a walk-up/take out fast food restaurant. Even McDonald’s wasn’t considered fast food. You either ate inside or it was a carhop. Glen wanted to focus on a fast food take out concept.
Glen watched every penny as he “poor boy’d” the construction of his first hamburger stand, Bell’s Burgers. He made the building 12 feet wide instead of 16 feet so he could use two-by-fours instead of two-by-sixes. He poured the cement himself. He didn’t know how to do electrical or plumbing but he did it anyway. “There were a lot of wires and pipes exposed.” He called a hundred suppliers trying to buy materials on credit and finally found one who accepted.
When Bell’s hamburger stand finally opened, business was slow at first but it gradually increased. Customers liked the idea of not having to tip. They also liked not having to wait 15-minutes to get their food. Word spread. The McDonald’s brothers even visited, ordered burgers, and watched his operation.
He learned several valuable lessons. First, he used an icebox which meant he couldn’t keep perishables overnight. This meant he only used fresh food, every day, which made the food taste better. It also made him very cognizant of how much food to purchase. Since it was just him at first running the stand he knew exactly how many steps it took to make a burger. He got very efficient. It took several months but he finally made enough to pay off his debts.
Less than a year after Bell’s Burgers opened for business, a storm hit and 80 mph winds destroyed his building. He was devastated. He was able to get a loan through Bank of America to repair the building. He reopened a couple months later. He added hot dogs and root beer served in chilled mugs. Business was good.
Glen managed the restaurant from 5am buying produce, preparing for the day, and serving the customers until the last one left (sometimes until 1am). His wife couldn’t take his schedule and after they had their second child he agreed to sell the restaurant.
Now he needed to start over again.
Glen took a job at a service station, but all he kept thinking about was building a hamburger stand across the street from the station. He rented the land across the street and built a hamburger stand (on credit from suppliers) without his wife even knowing. He was back in business. His wife would soon find out and reluctantly agree to it.
He continued to observe the McDonald brothers. By this time, the McDonald brothers renovated and redid their concept at the original location to be more of a fast food concept after their carhop attracted too much loitering by teenagers. Glen sat in the McDonalds and watched the operation closely. He was amazed at the innovation. McDonald’s was the first restaurant he had seen to introduce paper cups for drinks instead of bottles or glasses that needed to be returned or cleaned. “I thought that was the greatest thing ever.”, Glen said.
McDonald’s also developed custom made “goopers’, hand held steel dispensers for ketchup and mustard. The amount of business that one restaurant did was amazing. In July of 1952, the cover story of American Restaurant magazine was on McDonalds, and how their twelve by sixteen foot restaurant sells one million hamburgers and 160 tons of french fries per year.
Although Glen’s business did well, it was becoming apparent that San Bernardino had become saturated with hamburger stands. He needed to think of something new. After eating at several Mexican restaurants he observed how the tacos were being made and wondered why they weren’t being made in an assembly line fashion. He told his wife that he thought tacos could be the new thing that would differentiate his restaurant from the rest. He just needed to figure out a way to make the crisp shelled tacos quickly.
His wife provided little support. She foresaw them living in a poor Hispanic neighborhood the rest of their lives. She gave him no encouragement. Glen used their life savings to rent a vacant lot and start construction across the street from a tortilla factory. His plan with this second location was to sell Mexican food along with fries and malts.
Glen started several taco-making experiments to create crisp shells to be filled. He found he could dip a tortilla in a hot fat and it would hold its shape, but when he folded the tortilla in half and fried it, the side stuck together then shattered when he pried them apart. He ultimately made wire forms to hold tortillas open when they were fried to hold their shape. He worked with a man who made wire chicken coops to make them. He was able to dip 6 taco shells at a time. He then invented a taco slide, a V-shaped metal trough about two inches deep and eighteen inches long. He now had his assembly line.
He found tacos to be better than hamburgers and hot dogs in several other ways. He found tacos were less messy to make then frying hamburgers all day when you get grease in your hair and everywhere. Second, with hamburgers, everyone wanted theirs customized (“hold the onions” or “extra onions”). With tacos every order was the same.
When he put up his sign “Tacos nine-teen cents” the business was slow at first but it picked up. It wasn’t long until Glen’s stand was the tortilla factory’s largest customer. Business was good. He knew tacos were the future.
The bad news is that his long work days put a strain on his marriage, and his wife filed for divorce. To make sure his son’s needs would be met, Glen gave his wife their house, bank account, and his restaurants.
Now he needed to start over again, for a third time.
In 1953, Glen moved 70 miles east to the tiny desert town of Barstow. Glen obtained a bank loan and built a fast food restaurant similar to the one in San Bernardino, except he wanted to only sell Mexican items. But he was worried it wouldn’t do well so at the last minute he added hamburgers. Business started slowly, but it soon exceeded Glen’s expectations. When tacos outsold hamburgers he was convinced his Mexican fast-food concept could succeed anywhere.
Glen began writing and drawing his ultimate Mexican fast food concept store and scouting for locations. No bank would give him a loan since they couldn’t see Glen’s vision for tacos. Finally, Glen met Al McDonald (no relation to McDonald’s) that would fund the construction and they would become equal partners. They would name the restaurant Taco-Tia.
Around this same time Glen met the love of his life, Martha “Marty” Ahl. When asked what first attracted him to Marty, Glen replied, “her interest in tacos”.
Glen and Al would open the first Taco-Tia in San Bernardino in 1954. At the grand opening Glen hired a mariachi band and Mexican women to dance. He brought in searchlights that could be seen from miles away, and he handed out sombrero hats. The Taco-Tia was the buzz of the town.
Glen had little time to oversee his Bell’s Hamburger stand in Barstow so he brought in Ed Hackbarth to manage it and sold him half the interest in it. They would soon change its name to Taco-Tia. A decade later in 1964, Ed founded the fast food chain Del Taco, which today has over 550 locations.
“I helped several of my competitors get started,” Glen says. “People seem to think we ought to hate each other, but we’ve stayed good friends.”
Glen and Al opened up several more Taco-Tia’s and franchised a few of them. The Taco-Tia restaurants were so successful they were paying for the building and equipment in 6-months. Glen wanted to expand quickly, but his partner Al didn’t. Glen was a lot younger than Al and Al liked the slow growth method.
Once again, Glen gave up the successful restaurants he had created. He sold his interest to Al.
It was time to start over for a fourth time.
Glen retained the right to use the Taco-Tia name, as long as he wouldn’t build any restaurants in San Bernardino. He was now focused on Los Angeles.
In 1957, Glen would partner with NFL players Charley Toogood and Harland Svare, and Phil Crosby (son of Bing Crosby) to build the first El Taco restaurant. They would build three more El Tacos together over the next few years. Glen ended up selling his partnership back to the partners. Glen said, “They were good partners. But I had a strong desire to be independent.”
It was time to start over for the fifth time.
He was confident in his abilities. A friend mentioned the name “Taco Bell” and it stuck. The banks would still not lend him money. He sold a vacant lot he owned to his father in law, and raised money from other family and friends. He picked out six lots to build on.
Glen had now founded and started two competing Mexican fast food concepts (Taco-Tia and El Taco) that had a head start on him. Ironically, he would help one more chain get its start before launching Taco Bell.
Glen’s father in law wanted to put a restaurant on the vacant lot Glen sold him. A friend, John Galardi, agreed to run the restaurant. It couldn’t sell tacos because there was an El Taco nearby. Glen suggested hot dogs. Over dinner one evening they agreed to name it Wienerschnitzel. Today, Wienerschnitzel’s is the largest hot dog chain in the world.
In 1962, Glen opened his first Taco Bell on Firestone Boulevard, south east of downtown Los Angeles. It cost him $8,500 to build the first one. It seemed doomed to fail from the very beginning because road construction prevented customers from even getting to the restaurant from the other side of the street. Yet, in the evenings Glen would watch cars as they drove by the restaurant turn around and come back the other way just to come to Taco Bell.
Over the next two years he would build 8 more Taco Bells. Glen was constantly sitting in on competitors restaurants and analyzing how they did things. He would estimate how much business the competitors were doing by counting tomato boxes and crates of lettuce and talking to the delivery people. Jack-in-the-Box would have a new menu item, and Glen would drive from LA to San Diego to try it.
By 1964, everything was set for franchising. Glen said, “I had gotten to the stage where I had everything right – the building, the food items, and the system”.
The first franchise needed to be successful. In 1964, it was sold to Kermitt Beeke, a 43-year old police officer with no restaurant experience. Glen liked Beeke because he grew up a farm boy just like Glen. The quote below sums up “why”.
“Both me and Glen Bell were farm kids. We don’t know when to stop working.”
In the first month, Beeke’s Taco Bell, netted more profit than his entire annual salary as a police officer. In two months, his entire investment was paid off. It was a huge success and the demand for franchises exploded. By the end of 1966, they sold 105 franchises.
Word spread about the franchising opportunity in very interesting niches. For example, a rancher in the Imperial Valley, who had been living hand to mouth for years, sold everything and bought a franchise. A few months later when his friends saw him driving a Cadillac, they wondered what had happened. 20 franchises were purchased by his friends.
In 1978, Taco Bell had 868 stores in 38 states. Glen Bell was ready to move on. Industry experts at the time said that the growing Hispanic populations and American’s love of Mexican food made Taco Bell a perfect acquisition target. Several companies were interested including H.J. Heinz, Beatrice Foods, Campbell Soup, but it was PepsiCo that put in a last minute high bid and Glen exchanged his interest for shares in PepsiCo.
By 1987, Taco Bell had 2,700 stores, and by 1996, that number grew to 6,890 stores.
Just like many other intelligent fanatics, there was no instant success [Read: Fallacy of Instant Success]. It took Glen Bell 15 years and four false starts just to get into a position to succeed. The power to endure is the winner’s quality. If you learn from your mistakes and don’t give up…… you win.
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