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.
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?
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.