Taco Bell, the Mexican-inspired restaurant chain, is often mentioned alongside fast food heavyweights such as Burger King and McDonald’s, and it’s what some Americans imagine when they think of Mexican food. Drive through or live in any small town or large city in the United States, and you’re bound to know where the nearest of Taco Bell’s 7,072 restaurants can be found.
But you won’t find a Taco Bell in Mexico.
Taco Bell has tried and failed to bring the eatery to the Mexican market twice since first opening its doors.
Taco Bell Voted Best Mexican Restaurant in U.S.
To understand why Taco Bell failed in Mexico it’s best to realize just how loved Taco Bell is in the United States. The fast food chain first found its footing in California in the early 1960s, and since then it has become the nation’s number one taco joint.
According to a survey conducted by The Harris Poll, Taco Bell was voted America’s favorite Mexican restaurant in 2018, beating out competitors like Chipotle and Moe’s Southwest Grill.
It’s only natural for a fast food chain that serves billions of customers to want to bring their food and success to other countries.
Taco Bell Enters the Mexican Market
The people of Mexico weren’t as keen on the Taco Bell brand as their neighbors to the north. Tacos are famously Mexican food. What we call tacos today likely got their name from 18th century silver mines in Mexico when miners used to excavate ore “tacos.” Granted, tortillas filled with ingredients were probably eaten before that time, but, still, tacos are inherently an “authentic” Mexican dish.
With that in mind, it seemed almost sacrilegious for a company like Taco Bell — which was started by an American who first ran hot dog and hamburger stands — to try and bring its Americanized tacos to the country. But that’s exactly what happened in 1992.
The First Taco Bell Attempt in Mexico
The first Taco Bell in Mexico opened as a food cart in Mexico City in 1992, and the chain had plans to open at another location in the city as well as in Tijuana soon after. Unfortunately, customers were quickly confused when the names of menu items didn’t jive with authentic Mexican counterparts. Taco Bell’s crunchy taco had to be renamed the “Tacostada” because it more closely resembled the Mexican tostada.
The market was so unkind to the fast food brand, and the people so averse to the pseudo-Mexican food, that Taco Bell left the country only two years later.
The Second Taco Bell Attempt in Mexico
Taco Bell took another stab at opening in Mexico in 2007, but the same stumbling blocks stood in the way. Locals felt like Taco Bell tacos were inauthentic, even though the company rebranded with a clear message that Taco Bell wasn’t trying to be authentic Mexican food. The fast food chain went as far as to include fries and soft-serve ice cream on the menu to sell its Americanized image.
According to the Seattle Times and pop culture historian Carlos Monsiváis, bringing Taco Bell to Mexico was a lot like bringing ice to the Arctic. It just wasn’t necessary.
By 2010, Taco Bell once again closed all of its restaurants in Mexico due to low patronage.
Taco Bell May Never Find a Home in Mexico
It’s easy to see why people in the country aren’t quick to flock to a quick-service chain that’s doesn’t stand up to local standards.
It’s likely that the fast food restaurant will always have trouble finding a home in Mexico, especially when Mexican customers who try the food decry Taco Bell’s folded tostadas (crunchy tacos) as not tacos and ugly.
While Yum! Brands — the company that owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC — isn’t suffering, it does see a decrease in sales year-over-year. Yum! went from making five billion dollars in 2012 to making only two billion in 2018. Chances are the company is always looking for new markets. Mexico, however, doesn't seem like a market that will work.