The Untold Truth Of The Taco Bell Doritos Locos Tacos

It is an idea that smacks of inebriation: a taco with Doritos chips for a shell. Unlike some other ideas born from a cocktail of gimmickry and the need to market something, the Doritos Locos Tacos became a hit, showing the power of collaboration. Covering the later release of the Fiery Hot Doritos Locos Tacos for Slate, Matthew Yglesias wrote, "the slightly odd mouthfeel of Doritos blends quite nicely with the equally odd mouthfeel of Taco Bell ground beef." It should not necessarily work, yet it has become an iconic menu item for Taco Bell. The Daily Meal even includes the product along with the likes of the Baconator and McDonald's French fries on its list of most famous fast-food menu items of all time.

But what fingerprints can be found pressed against the chip covered shell? Such a flagship must have secrets beyond the composition of its meat. Or, at the very least, there is a story beyond a night of indulgence leading to an accidental idea. Taco Bell needed the Doritos Locos Taco to happen, and since its creation, it has served as the brand's avatar as well as the imagination that often surrounds fast-food businesses.

Taco Bell needed Doritos Locos Tacos to dominate

"Every day I see a lot of concepts – sketches on paper, written words about products – and my job is to turn those products into reality," Steve Gomez, Taco Bell's food innovation expert, explained to Fast Company in 2013. The Doritos Locos Taco, however, was different. "The product didn't even exist yet, and already people knew this idea was going to be huge."

And it needed to be to meet both internal and external pressures.

Rushing about Taco Bell's HQ in 2009, CEO Greg Creed wrung his hands in worry. The brand would hit its 50-year anniversary in 2013. Without some kind of innovation, Fast Company wrote, the company would appear old, stolid to its 20-something customer base. 

That said, the image Taco Bell held at that time wasn't very good either. In the months leading to the launch of the Doritos Locos Taco, Forbes headlined their piece "Can Doritos Locos Tacos Save Taco Bell?" In the previous decade, Taco Bell's food spawned two outbreaks and fought a lawsuit that claimed its beef was only 35% actual beef. The latter caused sales to drop by 2%. Moreover, these setbacks also occurred when another fast Mexican chain called Chipotle was gaining steam.

So, Taco Bell joined Frito-Lay in three years of collaborative effort to devise a shell that compromised between the crispness of a Doritos chip and the pliability needed for a taco shell. 

Who was behind the Doritos Locos Taco?

In Fast Company's telling of the Doritos Locos Taco's creation, the idea simply floated to the product team as one of 30 or so. No one is credited. "It was basically an image [of this taco] on a piece of paper, with a written description," Stephanie Perdue, Taco Bell's marketing director, remembered.

Being uncredited, the Doritos Locos Taco has had a fair share of people with some basis to claim that they had originated the idea. Of course, Taco Bell ignored all.

In 2014, HuffPost found four people who had apparently pitched the idea for a Doritos Locos Taco in a contest during an internship at Taco Bell in the summer of 1995. Andrea Watt acknowledged that by pitching the idea 20 years ago, she had probably waived her right to the concept, but "I would just like someone to recognize that it was a good idea." Taco Bell noted that the idea may have occurred to other people, so they wouldn't grant credit.

In 2009, Todd Mills pitched Doritos tacos to Taco Bell. They didn't bite, so he kept up a social media campaign. In 2012, they invited him to be a taste tester. After he died of cancer, The Motley Fool wrote, Taco Bell expressly stated Mills didn't create anything, so his widow wouldn't receive more than $1,000, despite the billions made. 

Of course, many could have conceived of the item, but Taco Bell's reticence to credit anyone raises suspicions.

The success of Doritos Locos Tacos has only recently been topped

In the end, to call the Doritos Locos Taco a success would be an understatement. In Fast Company's report, Taco Bell sold 100 million in the first 70 days alone. "When it launched, there was a significant impact – Taco Bell's [sales] numbers were up 13% in the second quarter of last year," John Glass, a Morgan Stanley analyst, said.

Fourteen months after the Doritos Locos Taco's debut, Taco Bell had reached 500 million sold. For context, Delish explains that Taco Bell had to sell over a million of this one product every single day. By October 2013, HuffPost was reporting that Taco Bell had generated $1 billion off the Doritos Locos Taco alone, with everyone proclaiming it the biggest launch in the history of the chain.

Being the best always invites usurpers. The Doritos Locos Taco held out for six years when Nacho Fries, a limited time offer, became the newest, biggest launch. Nation's Restaurant News reported that people included the fries in one out of every three orders, while the Doritos Locos Taco only reached one out of every four.

The difference, though, is that the Doritos Locos Taco sold an extraordinary amount when Taco Bell really needed an iconic product to serve as a flagship. Nacho Fries may have later outpaced the Doritos Locos Taco, but their millions of products sold did not save the brand from obsolescence.

Doritos Locos Tacos have become Taco Bell

The explosive success of the Doritos Locos Taco placed it as the food Taco Bell resorts to when it intends to make a gesture.

The first such instance came within months of the Doritos Locos Taco's domination of the American market. As Time reported, the inhabitants of remote Bethel, Alaska, grew excited over an inundation of flyers promising a Taco Bell. Those flyers, however, were a hoax.

When Taco Bell learned of the hoax, they airlifted 10,000 Doritos Locos Tacos across the 400 miles separating Bethel from Anchorage. "If we can feed people in Afghanistan and Iraq, we can feed people in Bethel," Greg Creed stated.

On a much smaller scale, the Doritos Locos Tacos have also been the reward for when a team steals a game during the NBA Finals. When CNN covered the 2019 iteration of the deal, the potential offer had already become a quasi-institution with four years of history. There isn't anything more fitting than for the item that saved Taco Bell to be the item that the fast-food restaurant gives out when it is feeling its most generous. 

The Doritos Locos Taco reshaped the industry

The biggest imprint left by the Doritos Locos Taco has been on the collective imagination of the fast-food industry. Each product team goes to bed dreaming of a stunt like the Doritos Locos Taco, one that can reverse a struggling company's fortunes. In a piece about stunt foods, Eater dubs it the Locos Effect.

Until the craze of the chicken sandwich wars distracted everyone, the worst affected by the trend was Burger King. FoodBeast described in 2016 how the burger company's Whopperito, which took the Whopper and wrapped it into a burrito, completely failed to understand the success of the Doritos Locos Taco. "The reason the Doritos Locos Taco made sense to us wasn't because 'of course Taco Bell would do this silly thing,'" the piece argued. "No, the new, screwball item was hyper-sensible to us because, when broken down, it was only a slight change." 

In fact, if you look at the last thousand or so words that fill this article, it's all about a taco shell made from a flavored tortilla chip. It slotted into the Taco Bell menu perfectly. Burger King and other stunt foods misunderstood the genius of the Doritos Locos Taco, chasing left of left field, only to find that once you describe their idea, there is nothing more than a culinary mistake. The Doritos Locos Taco was the greatest stunt food, reigning until the chicken sandwich's era.