Last week, when I got the call from Taco Bell’s PR firm, informing me that they wanted to ship me off to sunny California, just to eat a taco, I thought they were joking. It turns out they weren’t. As I documented in Part 1 and Part 2 of our sneak peak at the Doritos Locos Taco, my journey began on Wednesday, starting a cross country excursion for a date with destiny. Destiny was in the form of the upcoming Doritos Locos Tacos from Taco Bell, and the scene was to be set at 1 Glen Bell Way in Irvine, CA, Taco Bell’s HQ.

On Wednesday, I was chauffeured to the Pittsburgh International Airport, took a flight to Chicago’s O’Hare, and then hit my connecting flight all the way to Orange County Airport in California. Making a west coast trek in 9 hours would have had the settlers on the Oregon Trail drooling, but that’s exactly what I accomplished. Arriving in California at 11:30 Pacific Time (2:30 AM EST), my jet was lagging all the way to snooze town. With the Taco Bell sponsored dinner already having ceased, I went right to bed, hoping to head straight to dream land.

With my body still functioning on east coast time, I was up at the crack of dawn, anticipating the event like an 8 year old on Christmas morn. Having never been on the West Coast, I decided to traverse around the hotel lot, taking photos of palm trees, looking both touristy and creepy in the process. Having lived in Pittsburgh all my life, where the air seems to weigh more than chip chopped ham sandwiches, it was quite refreshing to experience how the world exists when there isn’t humidity.

Congregating with my fellow bloggers and Taco Bell enthusiasts, we soon made our short trip via shuttle to the promised land. Arriving at Taco Bell HQ, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed. I was Charlie and this was the Chocolate Factory. Inside those hollowed grounds contained all of the hidden wonders, beef blankets, and experimental creations that fill every taco lover’s brain socket.

As soon as we arrived, camera crews emerged, and we were whisked inside like the paparazzi were hot on our trails. Inside, a mariachi band greeted us with a festive flair.

We were informed later that the mariachi band was tradition for Taco Bell when celebrating a new store opening or a giant release. Here in the lobby we got our name tags and got to see all of the group’s respective sites/names on the big board. Yep, Fast Food Geek had made it to the mecca.

After signing in we went back to a conference room, set up WIFI, signed release forms, and were given the day’s official agenda. Ice breakers commenced, with each of our tasks being to imagine if we had our own Taco Bell Sauce packet, what it would say? Always a sauce enthusiast, I stated that mine would say “Heat It Up!”, hoping to induce the hottest of hots in my sauce.

After some meeting and greeting, Taco Bell’s CEO, Greg Creed, entered. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when he walked in, and we were greeted by a very easy going, down-to-earth man with an Australian accent. He was extremely welcoming to the blogger crowd and began spitting Taco Bell knowledge like it was overflowing out of his trousers. Here are some highlights:

Greg Creed
  • Taco Bell’s founder, Glen Bell, was the first fast food frontiersman to make Tacos as his main dish. Inventing a tray that could fry a bevvy of hard shells at once.
  • Taco Bell was the first fast food eatery to offer free refills and value combos. Two staples that are universal standards with any fast food restaurant today.
  • Glen Bell was the first fast food owner to hire woman as general managers, a position that previously was solely held by men.
  • The Doritos Locos Taco would be released on March 8th, nationwide, as a full time menu item, at midnight, in the Nacho Cheese flavor.
  • The original Doritos shell idea was to just add seasoning to Taco Bell’s current hard shell, but the product tested poorly.
  • The Doritos shell as it will be released will have authentic Doritos crunch, flavor, and seasoning.
  • Cool Ranch flavored shells are already being tested, with endless other possibilities with Frito Lay to come.
  • The Doritos Locos Tacos is their biggest product launch ever, with their first ever pre release contest.
  • New factories and workers had to be created/hired for the preparation and distribution of the Doritos Locos Tacos.
  • They plan on selling hundreds of millions of the DLT’s, citing that the best part about the idea is how simple it is.
  • Promotional items can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to develop based on their execution and extensiveness.
  • Taco Bell is the only distributor of Pepsi products in the world who sell more Mountain Dew than Pepsi cola.
  • Mountain Dew Baja Blast is and always will be a Taco Bell exclusive, with its color being inspired by the surf of Cabos San Lucas, Mexico.
  • Taco Bell uses over 300 million pounds of beef a year.
Flabbergasted with all of this info, he thanked us for being there, and we began a tour of the HQ. The tour started with a quick history lesson on Taco Bell in pictures:

Early beginnings in 60’s and 70’s
70’s to the late 90’s
Chiuaua era through 2002
Modern Times

Its amazing how many different products the Bell has released, especially time honored gimmicks such as all of the Grilled Stuft Burritos and Border Bowls. Seeing the history of Taco Bell is quite informative, from ownership changes, to failed products, to new ideals and mascots, the restaurant certainly has a rich and saucy history.

Next on the tour was the company cafeteria. With a wide variety of spots to choose from, it seems as though the mini Taco Bell was the first choice for many of the employees. With its expansive menu and customizable options, it’s hard for one to get sick of eating Taco Bell, because the possibilities are seemingly endless. It appeared as though many employees had a couple of signature “off the menu” go-to items that they would frequent.

The employee lounge was outfitted with arcade machines, the latest video game systems, and a big ol’ pool table. Pretty nice digs for employees to cool down after tempers flare in a board meeting regarding what next month’s promotional gimmick will be.

At long last it was time for what we all had waited for: the test kitchen. Under lock and key and needing special clearance to enter, it felt like we were about to cross over into a different world. With a multitude of different kitchens, the one I was most intrigued was a kitchen labeled “Sensory”. This is where food testers come in and are paid to give Taco Bell their thoughts on the latest products. Talk about a dream job.

We were quickly directed to the room labeled “Innovation Forum”, where we would meet our matches. Inside the room was a multi level seating area and a full sized Taco Bell test kitchen. Under the heating lamps lay the orange shells we had traveled time zones to get our hands on.

Along with all of the classic toppings were the sauce squeezers, each a great gimmick in their own right. I was honestly considering a backdoor smuggling attempt with that Pepper Jack sauce. That stuff is liquid gold.

Brian Niccol

Next, we were introduced to Brian Niccol, Taco Bell’s Chief Marketing Officer. He came in with a fresh breeze of passion and exhuberence for everything Taco Bell was throwing our way in 2012.

With all of the excitement for the Doritos Locos Tacos it’s easy to forget Taco Bell has already started deploying their breakfast “First Meal” and their new, fresh Cantina Bell menu in select areas for test marketing. Here are a few highlights:

First Meal:

  • First Meal is designed specifically for the every man. It starts later in the day and goes closer to lunch so that most anyone can get their hands on it.
  • First Meal is Taco Bell’s attempt to do to breakfast what they’ve already done to late night eating in Fourth Meal.
  • First Meal items will hit nationwide in 2014 and might eventually get thrown onto the late night menus.
  • They wanted it to represent Taco Bell, thus having Crunchwrap Supreme options and the Cinnabon Bites filled with icing.

Cantina Bell:

  • The Cantina Bell menu brings a plethora of new ingredients to Taco Bell including a new Guacamole with real hass avocados, a roasted corn and pepper salsa, citrus herb marinated chicken, and fiesta made salsa.
  • Celebrity chef Lorena Garcia was brought in to help create the products that consist of tacos, burritos, and burrito bowls.
  • The idea with Cantina Bell is “less is more,” with the seasoning being toned down on the ingredients, helping create a fresher flavor.
  • Cantina Bell could be pushed nationwide by the end of 2012.
Brian then took some questions and suggestions for future products from the bloggers. Don’t worry readers, I already asked him about a Cheesy Gordita Crunch with the Doritos shell. He seemed quite intrigued by the idea.

Next we were greeted by other Taco Bell execs touting more and more fascinating information about the history behind the Doritos Locos Tacos shell and Taco Bell ingredients. More highlights include:
  • There wasn’t enough cilantro being produced to satisfy the demands for Taco Bell’s Cantina Menu so they had to plant their own field.
  • The most pressing issue with Frito Lay was changing the iconic triangle shape of the Dorito into a taco shell. They eventually caved and allowed it.
  • The two hardest things to master with the Doritos shell was the flavor consistency and the breakage.
  • The Doritos Locos Tacos come in a nifty taco holster that is designed to not only help the consumer eat it, but also to ensure that the Bell employee doesn’t take too much of the Doritos flavoring away while preparing it.

At this point, we were finally allowed to eat. What a glorious moment in my life. My review of the Doritos Locos Tacos will be forthcoming with over a dozen photos and my well crafted insight and analysis.

The next to last event of the day occurred with some classic “Make Your Own Creation” time in the test kitchen. Yours truly washed my hands according to Taco Bell protocol, straddled on some gloves, and created my own Doritos Locos Tacos. You better believe I pasted on some Pepper Jack sauce though.

Although, my flight was leaving relatively soon, and I would have to say goodbye to the wonderful world of tacos, I was still privileged enough to be given a Doritos Locos Tacos Launch Box stuffed with two t-shirts, a hat, my very own Hot Sauce key chain, and handful of coupons to try out the Doritos Locos Tacos when it was released. This was our only compensation for the event and these launch boxes will be given to Taco Bell employees as well. But after trying those tacos I’ll be sporting my Doritos Locos Tacos swag with pride.

My journey had come to an end. I had traveled across the country and back for a taco. Some might say that’s crazy, even insane. But in our never ending quest to manhandle, manipulate, and taste test all that is fast food, I’d do it again in a heart beat.

Special thanks to Taco Bell for having us. We really appreciate the invite and hope to do it again soon! We also want to thank some great fellow food bloggers and aficionados we met at during the event: , , , , , and . It was great meeting you guys, keep on keeping on.

Stay tuned for the Doritos Locos Tacos review. You won’t want to miss it.