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Glen W. Bell Jr. dies at 86; founder of Taco Bell

Bell first sold tacos for 19 cents in San Bernardino in 1951, and he built Taco Bell from one Downey stand in 1962 to a $125-million business when he sold it in 1978.

January 19, 2010|Myrna Oliver
  • Business Wire
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Glen W. Bell Jr., the innovator and entrepreneur who tapped an unsated hunger for Mexican fare as Americans discovered fast food, creating Taco Tia, El Taco and in 1962 his signature Taco Bell, has died. He was 86.

Bell, who'd had Parkinson's disease since 1985, died Sunday at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, the company announced. No cause of death was given.


FOR THE RECORD:
Glen Bell obituary: The obituary of Taco Bell founder Glen W. Bell Jr. in Tuesday's Section A said he died Sunday. Bell died Saturday. —

"We changed the eating habits of an entire nation," Bell said in his 1999 biography, "Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story."

That he did.

When post-World War II Americans began to realize they could no longer survive without cheaply purchased, quickly delivered hamburgers, the Southern California born-and-bred Bell looked for another simple staple for the masses.

He chose the taco, which he first sold in 1951 for 19 cents each at a drive-in in San Bernardino.

Eventually, Bell coaxed multiethnic palates across the country into salivating for his tacos and later additions of burritos, tostadas, frijoles and chili burgers.

PepsiCo purchased Taco Bell in 1978 for $125 million and eventually spun off its restaurants into Tricon Global Restaurants Inc., now known as Yum Brands. Taco Bell serves more than 36 million customers each week in more than 5,600 U.S. locations.

Over the decades, Bell developed what he called his "recipes for success" -- some 60 homilies outlined in his biography. His first three rules were the formula for his restaurant chains:

* You build a business one customer at a time;

* Find the right product, then find a way to mass-produce it;

* An innovative product will set you apart.

"I'm an entrepreneur, not an administrator," he said. "Taco Bell prospered because I recognized my limitations, hired professional managers to make up for them, and knew when to let go."

Glen William Bell Jr. was born Sept. 3, 1923, in Lynwood to an often out-of-work construction worker father and resourceful mother faring worse financially than their own parents. Bell virtually grew up selling produce to help the struggling family.

When he was 5, the family moved to a small farm in Oregon, and as the Depression came on, he started selling cottage cheese door to door.

In 1934, the family moved to a 10-acre mountainside orchard, owned by Bell's maternal grandmother, south of San Bernardino in Cedar Springs. The family, now with five children, was more or less self-sufficient with the orchard, a garden and chickens. Again, young Glen became the salesman, peddling eggs, apples and flowers.

Halfway through high school, he hopped freight trains and roamed from Iowa to Washington seeking work, sometimes on relatives' farms. He spent a summer in Washington with a great aunt, learning to bake blackberry pies and selling them as Mrs. Dye's Homemade Pies. They split a profit of $3,000, and young Bell decided he wanted to own his own food stand.

After high school graduation in 1941, he worked for the U.S. Forestry Service and for the military near Barstow before joining the Marines. Bell's wartime service -- as a waiter serving top military brass in the South Pacific -- taught him how to balance the amount of food needed by specific numbers of diners, and the importance of clean and prompt service.

At war's end, he returned to San Bernardino and worked in a brickyard and the railroad yard before founding in 1948 a hamburger drive-in, which he later sold to in-laws.

He also built a second hamburger stand in San Bernardino. When he developed and sold his first 19-cent taco at that location, Bell separated himself from the neighboring competitors he so admired, Mac and Dick McDonald.

But Bell's success, built through long work days, destroyed his six-year marriage to Dorothy Taylor, the mother of his oldest son, Rex. They divorced in 1953.

As he restlessly built new stores and explored developing chains of food shops with partners, only to sell his interests, he influenced the creation of such fast-food brands as Taco Tia, Del Taco, El Taco and even Der Wienerschnitzel, whose owner he tutored.

In 1953, at age 30, Bell struck out for Barstow and built Bell's Hamburgers, selling tacos and hamburgers. He took on a partner, Ed Hackbarth, who in 1964 founded Del Taco.

Bell took on another partner, variety store owner Al McDonald, to build a new taco stand in San Bernardino -- the first dubbed Taco Tia.

After adding Taco Tias in Riverside and Redlands, he sold out to McDonald, who opposed Bell's insistence on further expansion.

In 1955 Bell married a teacher, Martha "Marty" Ahl, and struck out on his own again -- this time in Pasadena. But he misjudged the clientele, and his Taco Tia on Colorado Boulevard failed to show a profit.

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