It's been called 'the taco that could save the US' - but how does it taste...?

Taco Bell sells so many of its latest snack, it's had to take on 15,000 staff to keep up. Tim Walker finds out what the fuss is about

There was a five-car queue for the drive-through window at Taco Bell in Santa Monica at lunchtime on Thursday.

Inside the restaurant, however, I didn’t have to wait long to sample the famous Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco. The modest snack was the biggest-selling item on the fast-food chain’s menu last year. Taco Bell patrons ate 375 million of the bright orange chilli-filled semi-circles in 2012: more than a million per day.

Thanks in large part to this single miraculous foodstuff, the company bucked the US economic trend, taking on 15,000 new staff to match its eight per cent annual same-store sales rise. Taco Bell grew faster last year than KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s. Greg Creed, the chain’s chief executive, told The Daily Beast this week that the Doritos Locos Taco was “the biggest launch in Taco Bell history”. So I went to find out how it tasted.

It tasted just as you’d expect: like a giant crisp, stuffed with shredded iceberg lettuce, grated generic cheddar and a sprinkling of diced tomato. Hidden at its heart is a thick seam of beef chilli. It’s polished off in less than a minute, leaving nothing but a cardboard sleeve smeared with sour cream. And less than a minute after that, the flavours are all but forgotten.

To put the sales statistics in some perspective, it should be noted that one Taco Bell taco is too small for lunch – so I ordered another. On 7 March, the company launched its new Cool Ranch-flavoured Doritos taco with the largest marketing campaign in its history. Like its predecessor, the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco costs just $1.29 (85p) plus tax. Unlike the Nacho Cheese version, it will not coat your fingers in cheese-flavoured orange dust. It contains 200 calories, which is 100 fewer than a McDonald’s cheeseburger.

There are only three Taco Bells in the UK, and two of those are in Essex. It’s not a dining experience for which I’d recommend travelling long distances. But in the US, Taco Bell, which turns 51 this week, is a fast food institution to rank alongside its more global rivals. Glen Bell opened his very first pseudo-Mexican restaurant in March 1962 in Downey, a suburb of Greater Los Angeles. Sixteen years later, he sold the burgeoning Taco Bell chain to PepsiCo.

That brought Taco Bell and Doritos under the same corporate roof: the popular tortilla chips are manufactured by Frito-Lay North America, PepsiCo’s $13bn convenient foods arm. In 1997, however, the conglomerate spun off its restaurant business into what is now Yum! Brands, Inc. Based in Louisville, Kentucky, Yum! is one of the world’s biggest restaurant firms. As CEO, Creed oversees not only Taco Bell, but also KFC and Pizza Hut.

Though the company boasts more than 39,000 outlets in 125 countries, Taco Bell is primarily US-based, with only 280 branches outside its home country, most of which are in Canada.

Nevertheless, with almost 6,000 locations in the US its 150,000 staff still manage to sell more than two billion tacos and one billion burritos per year. “We believe we can add 2,000 new restaurants in the next 10 years, because what we have is proprietary and exclusive. Nobody else can make a Cool Ranch Doritos taco,” said Creed.

The average customer reportedly visits a Taco Bell once every 11 days. Shana Neal, 25, who was in the queue in Santa Monica with her daughter, said she normally cooks at home. “But my dentist is nearby, so I treat myself to a meal here whenever I visit the dentist. I know it’s not good for me, but it’s better than McDonald’s.” Her preferred menu items, she said, are the cheese quesadilla and the Mountain Dew Baja Blast Freeze slushie.

Taco Bell is at pains to persuade mature diners to partake, with its line of pricier, more sophisticated “Cantina Bell” products, such as the Cantina Bowl: “citrus-herb marinated chicken, flavourful black beans, a creamy cilantro dressing, and freshly prepared pico de gallo, all served on a bed of premium Latin rice.”

Taco Bell’s core customer, though, is young and active on social media. And Twitter suggests they are satisfied. “I have always liked the @tacobell #nachocheesedlt so I decided to try a #coolranchdlt,” a dutiful Josh Johns (@bootstx) tweeted on Thursday. “They’re both so good that I can’t pick a favorite!” Meanwhile, one Kristen Jenson (@kristen_jenson) wrote, “The boyfriend just bought me a #CoolRanchDLT so I guess I’ll keep him around.” Cheap date.

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