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

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.

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.

With still other partners, he built a food store in Long Beach they called El Taco. They built half a dozen or so, served by a central commissary to reduce overhead and control quality, before Bell again sold his interest.

Fresh out of names for a new enterprise, Bell turned to his real estate agent and friend, Bob Trujillo, who came up with the trademark Taco Bell.

The first Taco Bell opened in March 1962 in Downey. Within two years, Bell had opened eight more.

In 1964, he decided to franchise -- selling a turnkey restaurant, training, assistance and a grand opening celebration. The first franchise operation opened in Torrance and was wildly popular.

By 1966, Bell had his first franchise outside California -- Scottsdale, Ariz. -- and had spawned 80 Taco Bells. The next year, he opened a headquarters building in Torrance and hired architect Robert McKay as president to handle the nuts and bolts of everyday business. Bell moved to Florida to expand Taco Bells east.

When the first Taco Bell in Florida opened Nov. 29, 1967, tacos were so unfamiliar to residents that Bell had to run advertisements defining and picturing the menu items, listing ingredients and explaining how to pronounce them.

The company was so successful by 1969 that Bell made his first public stock offering. He remained the major stockholder and personally pocketed $1 million from the sale. By 1975, he resigned as chairman of the board and sold stock valued at $5.85 million.

Enamored with Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland, Bell had always wanted to develop his own theme park. After his efforts to create a family entertainment venue called Rainbow Springs in Florida fell through, he sold the property, which became a state park.

Closer to his Rancho Santa Fe home, Bell bought property near the bucolic town of Valley Center and in 1963 created Bell Gardens, a model produce farm, complete with sales to the public of fresh pumpkins and items from the other 63 crops.

Bell, indulging in his own personal history, installed a quarter-scale train for rides, a miniature train station called Summit that was reminiscent of the one where he hopped freights as a teenager, and vintage vehicles similar to ones owned by his family. One area of the farm was dubbed Cedar Springs.

The development welcomed thousands of schoolchildren each year on class trips, providing demonstrations in conservation and how various crops are grown, and offering train rides. Bell's 75th birthday was celebrated there with a huge fiesta reminiscent of those he staged to open Taco Bell restaurants.

Bell put his own money into the farm for many years, but in 2002 turned it over to a nonprofit corporation, which was unable to attract financial support. Bell Gardens closed in 2003.

As part of his philanthropy benefiting youth, Bell bought 4-H animals at local livestock auctions and donated them for resale to provide scholarships. He also supported the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club and Salvation Army Scripps Hospital.

Bell is survived by his wife, Martha, three sisters, a daughter, two sons and four grandchildren.

A private funeral is planned.

Oliver is a former Times staff writer.

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