This Man Pitched Taco Bell A Doritos Taco Shell 18 Years Ago

A Fast Company exclusive: The long path to innovation gets a little longer.

Who thought up the Doritos-flavored Taco Bell taco? The answer has more layers than a Nachos Bell Grande. Fast Company has learned that the concept was first discussed with Taco Bell food scientists and other employees as early as 1995.

Let's recap for a moment. Taco Bell introduced the Doritos Locos Taco in early 2012 after nearly three years of R&D. The over-the-top taste sensation, in Nacho Cheese, Cool Ranch and Fiery flavors, has moved more than $1 billion in crunchy units.

This month, the passing of a man named Todd Mills put a wrinkle in that origin story. Mills started a Facebook page in 2009 advocating for Doritos-flavored taco shells and even contacted Frito-Lay with the idea. When we reported that, Taco Bell's PR firm contacted us to to "clarify," among other things, that Mills did not invent the Doritos Locos Taco. But both friends of and strangers to the Mills family have started Facebook groups and online petitions suggesting that Taco Bell donate money to start a college fund for the late Mills's daughters.

However, the story told by a certain Mark Rader , a writer who teaches at the University of Chicago, undermines the Todd Mills case even as it also puts the lie to the official Taco Bell story.

The DoritoTaco team at their presentation, 1995. Mark Rader, second from right.Photo courtesy of Mark Rader

In 1995 Rader was a communications student at Tulane University when he saw a flier for a nationally competitive nine-week paid internship at the now-defunct ad agency Bozell, Salvati Montgomery Sakoda in Costa Mesa, California. At the time, BSMS had the Taco Bell account. The interns would be placed in teams of four and have the opportunity to dream up, research, and pitch new Taco Bell products. This was no ordinary internship; the company was flashing serious cash to the students, including trips to the San Diego Zoo, Planet Hollywood, fancy restaurants, and comedy clubs.

Rader's internship application featured construction-paper tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese inside a manila envelope cut in the shape of a taco shell. "I called my application itself 'the meat,'" he recalls. That was just the kind of thinking that would get a kid out to Costa Mesa.

At the time, Doritos were available in a short-lived series of specialty flavors co-branded with PepsiCo: Pizza Hut Cravers and Taco Supreme. "Our group's thinking was, why not just flip that idea around?" says Rader. Thus their pitch: The DoritoTaco, a Taco Bell taco with a Doritos flavored shell.

Was Taco Bell really paying attention to a bunch of college interns? Well, the interns certainly had conversations about their idea with many, many Taco Bell employees up and down the food chain, raising the probability that the idea might have stuck in someone's mind. Says Rader:

As part of the internship, the twelve of us met with people at every level of both product development and advertising—-Taco Bell food scientists, copywriters, art directors, media buyers, traffic people—in order to get a handle on each component of creating a Taco Bell product and pitching it in all channels.

I remember talking to the food scientists in particular, because I thought their job was the coolest. They actually made something real ... This is eighteen years ago, but I do remember these questions in general being raised:

1) What was the feasibility of creating a taco shell that would have both the flavor and crunch of a Dorito?
2) Would spraying Doritos flavoring on standard hard taco shells suffice?
3) How much would that cost—and would it be viable?
4) If it was super crunchy, wouldn't that make them easier to break—harder to ship?

Bob Taber, who advised Rader's internship program as head of strategy for BSMS, confirms the rough outlines of his story, including the DoritoTaco.Photo courtesy of Mark Rader

More than a decade later, these exact same issues were tackled by Taco Bell's teams—at a creative session 2009, and in the years following by food scientists during the development of the actual Doritos Locos Taco. Of course, the hard work in bringing a product like this to market is not raising these issues, but solving them, as Taco Bell eventually did, everything from the "teeth-rattling crunch" to the orange powder that comes off on your fingers. It involved creating a proprietary manufacturing process. Taco Bell thinks of the Doritos-flavored shells less as invention now and more as a platform.

For his part, Rader says he isn't looking for any sort of compensation for his idea all these years later. "No, no, no. Absolutely not. I'm sure we signed away all our intellectual property rights, anyway." What he is interested in, as a writer, with a master's in fiction, is the real story—did his team's presentation stick in someone's mind all those years later?

The twist here is that Rader's creation story proves part of Taco Bell's invention timeline. If, as an advertising intern, he dreamed up the idea for what became the Doritos Locos Taco in 1995, the restaurant's spokesperson isn't lying in a statement about the late Todd Mills, claiming, "... He did not invent it."

Taco Bell's PR firm has not responded to requests for comment. For the moment, the Doritos Locos Taco will remain a success with a thousand fathers.

[Taco Shell: Floortje | Getty Images]

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  • Hi, my name is Derrek Morris and I submitted this Idea to Invention Resource International as a secondary Idea along with a Gym shoe Idea They called me Months later after i told them i couldn't afford to pay them 8k at the time to bring my Ideas to market and asked me was i going to still use my idea cause some one came up with something similar in their ohio office i told the ceo of the nike corporation if they used my idea i will sue them and the taco shell was the secondary idea I submitted in person after they sign the letter of confidentiality, now seeing my idea come to life almost 10 years later i know some one from this company passed on my billion dollar idea to a friend or family member this matter is being investigated along with the company I submitted my Idea to at 1200 Harger Road Oak Brook Il, 60523 and i want my rights to One of my Many billion dollar Ideas

  • Mark Rader

    Would also like to clarify that the "copywriters, art directors, media buyers, traffic people" I referred to weren't Taco Bell employees but employees of the ad agency we worked at. Definitely consulted with TB food scientists, and I'm fairly certain (thought couldn't prove it now) that other Taco Bell people were in the room during the presentation, as their HQ was a half hour away in Irvine, and they were interested in our findings. Also, as another group's Frito Burrito idea was in fact launched and tested in Texas a year or two later, seems apparent that our ideas were passed on.

  • RazzleD

    Taco Bell has had grocery store nacho flavored taco shells for at least a decade. You can order them on Amazon too. They taste awful.

    The "Doritos" Tacos Locos is a huge step up. The engineering of making this upgraded taco took more R&D from both companies to make this work.

    It somewhat bothers me that somebody that didn't work at either company and had no new idea how to fix the obstacles of the existing nacho cheese taco shell...and didn't work on the R&D teams, could claim to be the idea source.
    Who hasn't looked for chips for their taco salad and tried some Doritos? Who hasn't thought, this would make a good taco? I tried it and it was really bad. It took more than one idea to make the product that is popular today.

  • Anthony Reardon

    When I used to live in Sunnyvale, California, (part of Silicon Valley) I would often go visit the Patent and Trademark Resource Center at the public library. Great place to really study the ins and outs of what that all means. Most of these issues people have about proprietary ideas and rights thereof are misled. The technical processes involved in protecting intellectual capital are intensive, and generally the domain of major corporations. They don't really protect against abuse from what I have seen, but rather serve litigious purposes to deter or otherwise cause friction against competing interests.

    Back when I was in college, I quit a job because I had signed an agreement that made any idea I came up with under their employ their property. Then I set up a meeting with the CEO and tried to pitch my solution without giving away any of the juicy details. Imagine how that went, lol!

    Interesting the mention of the inter-company synergy. In 1997 I pitched a business plan to a board of investors for "Inter-Business Innovation" a prelude to the geographic-based social network and what is now emerging as the popular "sharing economy". It got shot down, but I will never forget the story the head decision-maker left me with. He said he had worked at Pizza Hut and came up with the idea to drive and deliver pizza's directly to peoples' doors. While they did not take his idea at the time, he said, it eventually proved a good one and happened anyway. Moral was if you really believe in something, don't let people telling you "no" stop you from going for it.

    Anyways, I think today it is more about getting something to market. The most innovative concept to that lies in the open source "maker" type movement. Instead of reserving your proprietary ideas because you want to get rich and don't want people to steal them, you give them away, involve as many people as you can in developing applications to get them to market, and if they are any good you'll get intellectual credit for your part, with most likely an attentive audience with the right people next time you've got a bright idea.

    Best, Anthony

  • Mark Rader

    Hi there---just found out FC decided to run the story today, or would have posted earlier. I want to make clear--for anyone who'd bother reading this now--that it wasn't me, personally, who pitched the idea. It was all four of us in that group working as a team. Liked the article a lot, but want to make sure that's clear. As I don't remember the last names of the other three (if memory serves, was Andrea, Jim, and Kristin) I'm unable to reach out to them to talk about this. If anyone of you read this or recognize the folks in those photos, would be great to reconnect, laugh about the fact that the DoritoTaco got made. Emailing Anya (okay, Anya?) might be the best way to do that.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Hey Mark, that's cool of you to chime in.

    Funny thing that you mention that. Thinking back to when I lived in Sillcon Valley, I was roommates with a bunch of engineers from MIT, but lost touch and wish I could reconnect.

    Right now I'm visiting family for the holidays where I went to college, and they pulled out my old business plan /proposal/notes for the idea I developed and pitched almost around the same time as you guys. Cool to have some archived proof laying around because now that all this stuff is mainstream, most people would find my story unbelievable.

    I think Taco Bell probably didn't have the information infrastructure to document your idea, and probably didn't respect you guys as interns enough to associate your contribution with what they ended up doing. However, a lot of talk today about rebranding fast food and integrating foodie type social engagement. In my opinion, they would have a better story to tell if they shared some of the credit with you- maybe not so much in terms of developing the idea, but perhaps in planting the seed and helping to influence their thinking. Even companies today miss out on some of the key insight they can get simply by appreciating feedback and suggestions- whether from their customers or young people they bring in as interns that can relate better to their customers.

    By your example, they could learn from their mistakes, capture innovative ideas better instead of letting them slip through the cracks, and speed up their development cycle to be that much more competitive.

    Nice of you to share credit too. Where we talk about innovation as a culture and putting minds together to accomplish more than we could individually, I think your case is exactly the kind of thing companies are looking for. It still speaks highly to your talent. You might have been far ahead of the curve back then, one can only imagine what kind of insight you might be able to contribute today.

  • RazzleD

    Lot's of people have ideas. That does not make them inventors even if they pitched it.
    Todd Mills never made the taco shell. So, how can he have invented it?

  • Bob Brent

    RazzleD, that’s exactly why the US Patent system is in such (high-tech) chaos these days, with Court (Northern California Federal ALJ Grewal) literally begging Samsung & Apple counsel to reach consensus on more items to spare court time in their patent dispute. You don’t have to commercialize an idea to patent it, unlike a ™ trademark.

  • RazzleD

    Good point. But, I think copying from Apple is a different kind of case. This would be like Samsung saying, "We think Apple should make these changes" then sit back and wait for Apple to use an idea, then Samsung claim they are the creator without any development of their own.

  • Bob Brent

    As PFSI (PepsiCo Food Service International) employee responsible for marketing Taco Bell (and Pizza Hut) in Canada in the late 80's, I had pleasure of visiting/meeting with Taco Bell HQ staff in Irvine California on several occasions.

    At the time TB's creative was the "Run for the Border" campaign, primarily directed at fast food "Super-Heavy Users", aka 15–24 yo males who could eat tacos all day and not gain a pound (or similarly Pizza Hut, Pepsi, KFC, Frito-Lay products).

    The focus was on introducing young teens to TB's unfamiliar Mexican fast food, as an alternate to mainstream burgers and once hooked on its unique tastes, keep them coming back as SHU. A promotional tie-in with more established Frito-Lay products to reduce TB trial risk is a marketing no-brainer & part of PepsiCo's DNA.

    With 5 operating divisions it was part of PepsiCo's operating philosophy to learn from both outside competition and sister companies, so each division's AOP presentation to Chair Wayne Calloway & his staff would include another operating division sitting in.

    An example of the fruits of this inter-company synergy was our on-pack coupon co-promotion with Hostess/Frito-Lay & Pizza Hut/Taco Bell Canada that benefited both companies (trial for TB/PH Cda, repeat purchase for HF-L).

    Mark Rader's TB internship has the ring of authenticity to me, and the interns' contract, vetted by in-house Taco Bell counsel would include a clause that Taco Bell would own 'all rights' of the students work—in exchange for the paid internship.

    Apple/Samsung's patent litigation confirms that success has many fathers, or "prior art" in patent terms, and the same principle applies to brand line and flavor extensions—it's near impossible to discern the absolute origin of creative, new ideas.

    It would be standard practice for Taco Bell to respond to unsolicited ideas from the public with a formal legal letter, returning the letter & thanking the author for their interest in the company, its products without any commitment or comment on future products (aka Apple's obsessive new product secrecy). It's virtually impossible even after spending $60M in legal fees for Apple to definitively establish the originality of its new product ideas.

    Turning a creative, but simple idea: extending a Frito-Lay favour from a centralized factory to handmade Taco Bell products in thousands of dispersed TB locations is not a simple task—witness it took TB 3 years of internal work to iron out all the kinks before the successful launch.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Really terrific inside view Bob, thanks for sharing your experience!