If you drive to Downey, CA, you can find the oldest existing McDonald’s eatery and the currently vacant building that housed the first Taco Bell. And the tie between the two famous fast food names goes deeper than that. It was in the parking lot of the very first McDonald’s that the man who would eventually create the Taco Bell empire dreamt of a fast food empire stretching from coast to coast.
BIRTHED IN A PARKING LOT
But to understand Bell’s ideas you have to start at the beginning, at the first McDonald’s parking lot in the late 1940s. Bell – who had always wanted to work in the food business – just happened to be in the parking lot of the new “drive-in” restaurant concept started by the McDonald brothers when he came up with the idea of offering customers the chance to get their food from a service window, according to a company historian.
Soon after deciding that he had to open his own walk-up hamburger stand, Bell sold his sister’s refrigerator and started Bell’s Burgers. He incorporated the lessons he learned during the war, including the idea of a commissary — the cost-effective foodservice system still used by fast food restaurants today.
For several years after opening the stand, Bell and the McDonald brothers enjoyed a friendly rivalry while each company pioneered their own version of fast food.
TACO TIA TIME
By the early 1950s, much of the area around Bell’s Burgers was saturated with similar fast hamburger restaurants, leading Bell to decide he needed to incorporate other menu items to stay relevant. That’s when he set out to emulate the tacos popular at local sit-down Mexican restaurants.
“He knew that in order to bring tacos to mainstream America, he would need to make them easier to eat,” the Taco Bell historical account states. “So he created the first fast food crunchy taco shell.”
A short time later, the tacos were outselling hamburgers at the restaurant and Bell decided it was time to create a new stand focusing solely on Mexican food. And in 1954 Bell and a business partner opened the first Taco Tia.
“During a time of growing hamburger stands, Glenn Bell challenged the status quo and brought tacos to the masses,” a spokesperson for Taco Bell tells Consumerist.
While Taco Tia was a hit, just a few years later, after marrying and starting a family, Bell decided to move to the Los Angeles area. He sold his shares of Taco Tia to his business partner, and set off to open El Taco with a group of celebrity partners.
The new business had four locations and proved to be a hit in southern California. But the success left Bell itching for another challenge, and he decided to once again sell the locations to a business partner and start from scratch.
RINGING THE FIRST BELL
For his new taco concept, Bell targeted the booming city of Downey.
“Glen set out to combine everything he’d learned about food and restaurants so far and start a restaurant that served Mexican specialties,” the company history states. “A friend suggested that Glen combine his name with his passion and call the new restaurant ‘Taco Bell.'”
And so, in 1962, Bell opened a simple 20-foot-by-20-foot Spanish-style stucco building: The first Taco Bell.
The rather unremarkable building – which is currently at the center of a campaign to save it from demolition – would soon become the design inspiration for the Bell locations to come.
BUILT FOR EXPANSION
While many of Bell’s previous ventures included a few additional locations, Rispoli says the entire idea behind Taco Bell was to create a nationwide fast food restaurant.
Just six months later, Bells’ vision to create a thriving chain began to take shape with the opening of his second location in Long Beach – which continues to operate today.
Over the next two years Taco Bell would open seven additional locations in the area.
Then in 1965 Bell sold the first franchise to Kermit Bekke, a retired police officer. Two years after that, in January 1967, 100 Taco Bell locations could be found scattered around the Los Angeles region.
In 1978, Bell sold Taco Bell to PepsiCo for $130 million, and from there the chain grew by the thousands. Then, in 1997, Pepsi spun off its fast food chains — including Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut — into Kentucky-based Yum! Brands.
PRESERVING THE PAST
That first Taco Bell shut down around 30 years ago, but subsequent tenants of the building never did much to update Glenn Bell’s original design. So if you drive past 7112 Firestone Blvd. in Downey, you can still see the roots of what would become Taco Bell’s iconic look.
But that building might not be long for this world, as the structure has been vacant for many months and is a prime target for developers who would likely raze it and Glenn Bell’s piece of history with it.
“He modeled the restaurant after his successful chains elsewhere,” Katie Rispoli, executive director of We Are The Next — a local nonprofit working with Taco Bell to consider the possibility of relocating the first Taco Bell building — tells Consumerist of the first location. “He created a simple building so that people knew what it was before they got there. He continued to developed tacos that were easy to eat in the car and continued to use the walk-up window.”