Military, Modern Day, WW2

The Hamburger Vs Tacos: A Gift by a Marine Corps Cook

It all started with a World War Two Marine veteran’s hamburger stand.

Although often credited with inventing the hard-shell taco, Glen Bell’s contribution was actually the recreation of a taco recipe from a competing food stand, which he then popularised across the United States.

Creation of Taco Bell

This all began in 1951 and eventually led to the creation of Taco Bell in 1962. Taco Bell served a limited menu of tacos, burritos, tostadas, refried beans, and chili burgers in its early days.

Taco Bell
A Taco Bell outlet in Los Angeles. Glen Bell started his empire in LA with a hamburger stand

Today, the fast-food chain generates nearly $9.2 billion in revenue annually by offering a diverse range of items, including Mexican pizzas and Cheetos burritos. Although the chili burger is no longer on the menu, the original hard-shell taco remains a staple of the Taco Bell experience.

The Story of Glen Bell

Glen Bell, who grew up during the Great Depression, gained culinary experience during a brief stint selling pies and other comfort foods with his aunt to earn extra money. He joined the Marine Corps in 1943 and spent much of World War Two cooking for high-ranking Army and Navy Marine officers in the Solomon Islands.

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After returning home to San Bernardino, California, he noticed two brothers named McDonald operating a new type of burger stand where customers frequently returned throughout the day. Drawing from his extensive food service experience, Bell decided to pursue a similar venture, purchasing a grill and opening Bell’s Burgers in 1948.

Looking back, it may seem strange that the founder of Taco Bell ventured into the burger business, which put him in direct competition with McDonald’s. However, at the time, the Southern California burger market had room for everyone. 

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Bell’s second restaurant location was situated in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, across the street from the popular Mitla Cafe, a bustling Mexican restaurant that Bell frequented.

The Signature Hard-shell Tacos

Initially, Bell attempted to recreate the Mitla Cafe’s taco recipe. However, the restaurant staff eventually taught him how to make their signature hard-shell tacos dorados, which consisted of a deep-fried tortilla shell filled with meat, cheese, and tomatoes. 

Glen Bell in the USMC during WW2. He served in the Solomon Islands as a marine cook.

Still, Bell’s innovation wasn’t the taco itself; rather, he developed a method for pre-making hard-taco shells in large quantities, much like how hamburgers were prepared, but with less mess and faster turnaround time. In his 1999 biography, Bell revealed that he collaborated with a chicken coop manufacturer to create a custom fry basket made of chicken wire for forming and frying the hard shells.

In 1951, Bell added hard-shell tacos to the menu at Bell’s Burgers for just 19 cents each. The second customer of the day ordered a taco and quickly became a fan, despite ruining his pinstripe suit and tie with the taco’s juices.

Taco Tia and Taco Bell

The tacos were an instant hit, leading Bell to open his first Mexican-style restaurant, Taco Tia, in 1954. He eventually opened three Taco Tia locations before selling his stake to his business partner. In 1958, he and three other partners launched a chain called El Taco, but he also sold his share of that venture.

After years of working in the food service industry, Bell decided to establish his own restaurant and founded Taco Bell in Downey, California, with a meagre $4,000.

Taco Bell
Taco Bell staple diet. Bell was a former marine cook during WW2

However, his new venture experienced more rapid growth than any of his previous chains. Within two years, Bell had already opened eight Taco Bell locations. The first franchise location opened in 1964, expanding the brand’s reach even further.

Taco Bell’s popularity continued to skyrocket. By the time Bell sold the company to PepsiCo in 1978, there were a staggering 868 Taco Bell restaurants operating across the United States.

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Despite Bell’s initial lack of success with his previous food service ventures, his ingenuity, and dedication ultimately led to the creation of one of the most successful fast-food chains in the history of the USA.

The rest as they say, is history.