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Third-oldest Taco Bell in the world closes after 54 years in Laguna Beach

Customers enter and exit a Taco Bell with a red tile roof
Customers at the Laguna Beach Taco Bell, which closed its doors Tuesday after more than 54 years of service.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Those looking to make a run for the border without leaving the city of Laguna Beach will have to redraw their plans — after 54 years, the city’s lone Taco Bell restaurant, the oldest in Orange County, has closed.

The franchise business, located at 699 South Coast Highway since the establishment debuted as a walk-up taco stand in 1967, bid farewell Tuesday to customers and fans citywide.

Franchisee Steve Smith broke the news of the closure last week in a post made to a local Facebook group, in which he said his Taco Bell, the third-oldest in the world, would sling its last taco.

Smith, who did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, didn’t explicitly state a reason for the closure but criticized the Laguna Beach City Council for not embracing “national chains that bring value to middle-class citizens that live in Laguna Beach along with city workers and tourists [who] need value priced meals.”

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A woman wears a tan T-shirt outside a Taco Bell restaurant
Laguna resident Claire Barnett shows off a T-shirt commemorating the local Taco Bell, which closed Tuesday after 54 years.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Smith’s Aug. 31 post, which included photographs commemorating the franchise’s 50th anniversary in 2017, inspired a wave of local recollections from people who worked, or just hung out, at the local taco stand during the 1970s, ‘80s and beyond.

Laguna Beach resident Claire Barnett came down to the site Tuesday afternoon to get one last look at what had been a go-to place for her and her friends.

“We’d walk over here in middle school or come down here during high school for lunch,” said Barnett, 22. “I’m going to miss it so much. We might have to come back tonight for one more meal.”

A group of Taco Bell employees
Jasmine Cruz, manager Raymundo Gil, Gabriella Ricoh and Eduardo Martinez, from left, were the last night-crew shift at the Laguna Beach Taco Bell.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

According to plans filed with the city, the 5,800-square-foot parcel won’t remain vacant for long — the Laguna Beach Planning Commission in June approved a series of entitlements for a new occupant on the corner of South Coast Highway and Cleo Street.

The Taco Stand, which currently operates in the San Diego area, will offer Mexican fare in a fast casual environment. Patrons may dine indoors or outdoors, and beer and wine will be served.

Marshal Ininns, an architect representing the applicant in the June 16 meeting, said several site improvements, including covered trash storage and the conversion of some existing indoor dining space to an outdoor patio that can seat 33, are in the works.

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He indicated that the property owners, who lease the space to a third party who, in turn, deals directly with the business owners on the site, chose to accept a deal with the Taco Stand over other alternatives.

While restaurants have come and gone in Laguna Beach, one brick-walled building with arched windows emblematic of a Spanish mission has endured the decades by satisfying taco and burrito cravings.

“They chose to go with my client versus the franchisee of Taco Bell,” Innins said.

Planning Commissioner Steve Kellenberg said he was hopeful the new business would rejuvenate the area.

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“This is exactly the kind of street-scene changes we want to see as a city,” he said. “Moving from a national chain to a more boutique local business is a great move. It also becomes an opportunity to tune up this corner.”

The Laguna Beach closure marks the end of the third oldest Taco Bell restaurant in the world. Corporate spokespeople confirmed by email Tuesday only two older establishments, both opened in 1966, still operate in Goleta in Santa Barbara County and in Scottsdale, Ariz.

They would not clarify why the Laguna Beach franchise could not remain open.

“Unfortunately, lease renewal was not an option for the location … and we’re sad to see it close today,” they wrote.

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A man poses as a woman prepares to take his photo with a cellphone
Laguna resident Matt McCullough stands in front of Orange County’s oldest Taco Bell in Laguna Beach on the establishment’s last day of service. The restaurant opened in 1967.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Cardine writes for Times Community News.

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