The Glen Bell Legacy – 50 Years of Firsts

Glen Bell didn’t frame the first dollar he made selling a taco.When his dream to bring great Mexican food to mainstream America became a reality, it wasn’t the first sale that he would remember for the rest of his life; it was the first customer. “He was dressed in a suit,” remembered Glen, “and as he bit into the taco…the juice dripped onto his tie. I thought, ‘uh oh, we’ve lost this one.’ But he came back and said ‘That was good. Gimme another.”

In the years following that first taco, Glen remained deeply focused on the customer. He spent his entire life looking for ways to make a customer’s experience better—and he succeeded. That’s Glen’s legacy.

And this is his story…

The Early Years

Born September 23rd, 1923 near Long Beach, California, Glen Bell’s passion for serving hard- working Americans good food stemmed from a childhood of poverty. He grew, harvested and sold potaoes and strawberries to help his family make ends meet during the Great Depression. He was never embarrassed by his circum-stances­—he just worked hard to improve them.

Glen would eventually graduate high school, but academics couldn’t contain his entrepreneurial spirit or his passion for cooking and serving good food. So in 1941, he put his studies on hold to help his great aunt Mary with her small bakery in Washington.

It was perhaps this experience that Glen first realized the value of working with women­—a lesson that would play out in his future company.

“One of the problems we had in the early days was we didn’t have enough good managers,” recalls John Gorman, Taco Bell’s first Director of Operations. “There weren’t enough of them to go around (and) they were all men.” As John remembers it, Taco Bell was “the first chain to hire women managers to run the stores.”

Glen’s days at the bakery planted another seed, one that would change his life forever. “It gave me a dream,” Bell recalled. “I imagined some day I might have a little food stand.”

But after graduating high school, Glen had to put his dreams on hold. Like many young men of his generation, he was deployed overseas in 1943 as a Marine to serve in World War II.

Even during war, Glen found a way to fuel his passion for food. He mastered the art of ordering, portioning, cooking, and serving for the military’s massive food service industry. All lessons that would prove invaluable in the near future.

Paving his Way

After the war, Glen returned home to a California that was ripe for new ideas—a sort of wild, wild west for entrepreneurs. He was itching to take advantage of it, but lacked a unique concept. And he knew it.

While in the parking lot of a new “drive-in” restaurant started by two brothers named McDonald, it came to him. “What if someone could walk up and get their food from the service window?” thought Glen. It sounds simple now, but at the time, nobody knew if it would work. Except Glen Bell.

Glen had no start-up money. But he had determination and resourcefulness. He sold his sister’s refrigerator to start “Bell’s Burgers.” She wasn’t thrilled with the idea at first, but when she saw the little hamburger stand Glen built with his bare hands, she couldn’t have been prouder.

Over the next couple of years, Glen and the McDonald brothers enjoyed a friendly rivalry pioneering the fast food business, learning from each other along the way. At the time, Glen didn’t realize that their efforts, coupled with California’s rich cultural diversity and growing car culture, would one day lead to a worldwide phenomenon. He just knew Californians were a lot like his family in the Depression and the soldiers he served in the war—hungry for fast, good food.

That’s exactly what Bell’s Burgers delivered, one customer at a time. And often faster and better than its counterparts, thanks to Glen’s idea of a commissary, the cost-effective foodservice system still used by fast food restaurants today.

The Taco Revolution 

Glen and the McDonald brothers started a burger revolution. But when competitors began crowding the market by the early 1950s, Glen knew it was time for his next big idea –tacos.

At the time, few Americans had heard of a taco, much less considered it an option for fast food. After all, tacos were served in sit-down Mexican restaurants, and came in soft tortillas.

To Glen, this was an opportunity. He knew that in order to bring tacos to mainstream America, he would need to make them easier to eat. So he created the first fast food crunchy taco shell and filled it with the perfect mix of Mexican ingredients for the American palate.

When the new crunchy tacos began outselling his burgers, Glen sketched plans for a California-style food stand that only served Mexican food. In 1954, Glen opened the doors to his first “Taco Tia” restaurant. And he made sure everyone in town knew it. He drove around in an old bread truck, handing out sombreros to everyone he saw. He also hired Mariachis to stage a colorful fiesta outside his restaurant. It was a genius move for a man with almost no marketing budget.

Taco Tia was an instant hit. At only nineteen cents a taco, the restaurant grossed eighteen thousand dollars in its first month.

During that same year, Glen met the love of his life and his biggest supporter, his wife Marty Ahl. After they married and started their family, Glen was eager to continue growing. He sold his share of Taco Tia to his partner and made another big change- he moved his family to Los Angeles and started “El Taco” with a group of celebrity partners. There couldn’t have been a city more welcoming of tacos. Although El Taco was very successful, Glen was soon ready to move on again.

The Bell is Born

1st Taco Bell, 1962, on Firestone Avenue in Downey, CA.
1st Taco Bell, 1962, on Firestone Avenue in Downey, CA.

Glen set out to combine everything he’d learned about food and restaurants so far and start a restaurant that served Mexican specialties. A friend suggested that Glen combine his name with his passion and call the restaurant “Taco Bell.” Glen liked it. He scouted the local area and chose a lot on Firestone Boulevard in Downey, Calif., for the first Taco Bell location.

It was an immediate hit.

As Glen opened more Taco Bells, he wanted to change the look of the restaurants to resemble the architecture of California’s historic Missions. In 1964, with the help of architect Robert McKay, Glen opened the first of what would become the eventual standard for all Taco Bell restaurants: An inviting, central stone fire-pit housed by adobe-like tan brick exterior walls, a red clay-tile roof and a brown back drop, in front of a simple, Mission-style bell.

Eventually, Glen was ready to let others benefit from his success. That’s when the franchising of Taco Bell began.

“I owe my business life to Glen Bell,” said Kermit Bekke, Taco Bell’s first franchisee. “He created a great affordable market for people to get into. I was a police officer. I was scared to death. Glen told me ‘Don’t worry, you’re not going to lose.’ He showed me everything. He wasn’t afraid to go back in the kitchen with me and get dirty.”

Glen later achieved his goal of coast-to-coast expansion with the opening of Taco Bell in Florida.

The Legacy Lives On

Only five years after opening his first Taco Bell, Glen’s little food stand was ready to become a national corporation. After a major Wall Street bidding war, PepsiCo won the right to keep Glen Bell’s legacy alive. The boy who once went to school wearing cement sacks, was now one of the wealthiest men in America.

After years of constant travel, Glen settled down with Marty and his children in Rancho Santa Fe, California. But the restless entrepreneur wasn’t done dreaming. By the mid-1990s, Glen created “Bell Gardens,” a produce farm and park open to the public. The Bells spent many great years there together, enjoying their time as a family and helping the local community.

Glen passed away in 2010, but his legacy lives on.

It lives on in Taco Bell’s 5,600 restaurants, 350 franchisees, and 150,000 employees.

It lives on in the millions of customers who come to Taco Bell every week for that unique experience no other restaurant can offer.

It lives on in every menu innovation brought to life.

It lives on in the smiles of those who create, serve and eat Taco Bell’s delicious food.

Glen’s legacy is in everything Taco Bell does today, tomorrow, and beyond.

Baldwin, Debra Lee. Taco Titan: the Glen Bell Story. Arlington: Summit Publishing Group, 1999.
Early Taco Bell Franchisees. Video Interview. 2012. Bell Family. Video Interview. 2012.