Laguna Beach’s Taco Bell celebrates 50 years on Saturday
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.
The Taco Bell at 699 S. Coast Hwy. can’t compare in historical significance to California’s mission system, but the fast-food place, which opened in 1967, nonetheless maintains a noteworthy place in modern history.
It is the third-oldest, still-operating Taco Bell in the country. The oldest, in Santa Barbara, opened in late 1966, according to franchisee Steve Smith, who took the reins of the Laguna location in 2003.
On Saturday, the outlet will celebrate 50 years in Laguna Beach with free food and rolled-back prices for a limited time as well as T-shirts.
From 10 a.m. to noon, visitors can indulge in free Doritos Locos Tacos while supplies last. Then from noon to 3 p.m. crunchy tacos will cost the same as they did when the restaurant opened in 1967 — 19 cents — with a 10-per-person limit.
When the Taco Bell opened, it had an outdoor patio with a fire pit, powered by natural gas, and no dining room, said Smith. A remodel in the 1970s led to construction of an indoor dining room, Smith said.
But gaps in its history remain.
A photo from the late 1960s shows the store’s curved facade with a metal bell set inside a cavity. But it’s hard to find anyone in town who can recall the circumstances surrounding the bell’s removal.
In a city concerned with maintaining its cohesive look and character, the building’s exterior reveals a nod to tradition as well as a blending in with the surrounding environment. A fountain and neatly kept planters with succulents greet patrons.
But while this location, at the corner of South Coast Highway and Cleo Street, is a prime spot to catch the eye of pedestrians or work crews seeking a bite, its space and growth potential are limited.
“It’s certainly not high volume because there is no drive-through and limited parking,” Smith said.
Most customers are high school students and tourists, Smith said, adding, “We don’t get a lot of adult residents.”
Norm Rest is an exception. The Laguna resident said he visits Taco Bell four times a week. His usual order is something not on the menu: a breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, black beans, rice and pico de gallo.
The burrito is the ideal pick-me-up after a morning bike ride. On a late morning last week, Rest sat outside, drizzling hot sauce inside his burrito.
“I’ll get three or four and give them to the guys at the bike shop,” said Rest, 68.
Smith credits Taco Bell founder Glen Bell, who inked a 55-year lease on the Laguna location, with keeping the rent “favorable” — meaning only modest increases. Of course, what happens in five years is a question.
Bell opened the first Taco Bell in Downey in 1962, and eight more locations dawned in the next two years, the Huffington Post has reported. He started franchising Taco Bells in 1965, and by January 1967, 100 of the Mexican eateries dotted the Los Angeles region.
Step inside the Laguna Beach location and one is immediately hit with the familiar scent of warmed tortillas. On a recent workday, a crew of construction workers gobbled down tacos.
One employee noticed that a container of hot sauce packets was running low and quickly replenished the supply.
“All of my other stores are in large cities such as Santa Ana, Westminster,” Smith said. "[Laguna Beach] is a small town so the community can get involved.
“Most cities have multiple Taco Bells. Here we truly are the local Taco Bell.”