Taco Bell Headquarters and Test Kitchen: Irvine, California

As some of you may know already, last week I experienced what some have dubbed a “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” experience.  Invited by the nice folks at Taco Bell, I made my way from the rain drenched East Coast to the sunny skies of Southern California (well, sunny once you get passed the morning May Gray/June Gloom that plagues the area around this time of year).  Irvine, California, to be more specific, the home of the headquarters of Mexican fast food giant Taco Bell.  The visit’s intention was for Taco Bell to host an event for a select group of food bloggers to get an inside look of what’s new at Taco Bell.

Taco Bell Headquarters Building

The view from my hotel parking lot...The Taco Bell Building

Let’s get some details out of the way.  There were about 5 of us bloggers on Day 1 and on Day 2, John from SoGoodBlog and Elie from FoodBeast joined in on the festivities. Day 1 really just consisted of travel (for me it was Baltimore, MD to St. Louis, MO to Las Vegas, NV to Orange County, CA).  Once touching down at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, I took the hotel shuttle to the hotel which was literally a stones throw away.  After checking in and getting settled, I took a look at an envelope that included the 2-day itinerary and a bunch of Taco Bell Bucks…woohoo!  Seeing as though at this point it’s around 4pm and I’m just getting my bearings together, I hop to it to get ready to leave again.  A 4:30pm scheduled shuttle to take the group to Michael Kang’s Five Feet Restaurant in Laguna Beach.  The cast of characters making their way to this dinner… EpicPortions, Endless Simmer, Scott Roberts Web, Food Facts and Pleasure Palate.  We were hosted by Deborah Bell, Lauren Lloyd and Will Bortz, who were kind enough to get the group out for this visit.  The dinner at Five Feet was impressive and the owner and staff were very accommodating.  John from Epic Portions and I contemplated ordering a $7,500.00 bottle of wine from the huge selection but we figured $15 bottles of Chimay was damage enough. Sometime in the future, look out for a more detailed write-up of the restaurant.  A post dinner walk down to the beach was just what I needed after stuffing my face with beer, wine, goat cheese wontons, catfish, shrimp, tuna, boneless BBQ short ribs, mashed potatoes, Creme Brule etc, etc, etc.  The walk down to the beach was followed by a visit to the Marine Room Tavern to check out some live music and watch the Cavaliers hand away yet another game to the Orlando Magic.  The night ended with a handful of us left, at a Belgian-style bar/restaurant called Brussels Bistro.

Dinner at Five Feet Restaurant

Dinner at Five Feet Restaurant

A walk down to the beach...

A walk down to the beach...

Marine Room Tavern

Marine Room Tavern

On Day 2, the actual visit to the Taco Bell HQ took place. A 10:30am start, we made our way to the gigantic hotel sized building.  We could’ve taken the shuttle, but everything is so close, we just took a brief 5 minute walk to the building.   On our way to the building we are given a brief talk about some of the things we’ll see and a review of the itinerary.  Upon entering the building, to the immediate right is a cafeteria area that sort of resembled a Taco Bell restaurant, but on a much bigger scale.  On the walls there are displays of current Taco Bell promos and items such as the Volcano Menu, the Fruitista Freeze drinks and the New! Grilled Chicken Taco and Burrito. At the end of the cafeteria-esque area is a spot that resembles a food court for Yum! brands.  Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC are among some of the choices.

Some observations:

  1. I don’t know if what I was seeing was a sea of spokesmodels, but when I think of someone who works for Taco Bell, I don’t expect to see what I saw.  The ladies employed here might claim to grub on Taco Bell frequently, but they must work out a lot and stick to the Fresco menu.
  2. We probably covered about 5% of that building.  As I said before, it was HUGE.  For the most part, we were free to take pictures at will, but there were some areas that were off limits to pictures.  At one point I was left behind on the tour and went on my own snooping around.  Of course I don’t have pictures of it but I did see Cesar Millan getting into an argument with the Taco Bell Chihuahua.  I guess his past success has turned him into a nightmare to work with.  Now you know why you haven’t seen him in years.
  3. Sadly, I couldn’t get passed the door marked “Nacho Cheese Swimming Pool”.

The reception/lobby area of the building doubles as a sort of Hall of History. At this lobby area we were given some background information on the company from Public Relations Manager Will Bortz.  There is a time line of Taco Bell along one wing of this room.  Complete with display cases of certain promotions such as the Star Wars ad campaign, another display case with some stuffed Chihuahua dolls and another with a brick from the first Taco Bell restaurant.  I thought it was pretty cool that there were also displays of food packaging throughout the years.

Receptionist desk in the History Hall/Lobby

Receptionist desk in the History Hall/Lobby

A mix of new and old...

A mix of new and old...Anyone remember the Bell Beefer?

taco-bell-display-cases

A history lesson in packaging...from the 1960's through today

Random Taco Bell Display Items

Random Taco Bell Display Items

A piece of the very first Taco Bell restaurant

A piece of the very first Taco Bell restaurant

When the history lesson and tour wrapped up, we made our way to the test kitchen.  It would be cool to say we were blindfolded and taken deep underground to this top secret area but we weren’t. Through doors and some more doors, and across about 2 or 3 sterile looking kitchens equipped with people in lab coats (no pictures allowed in this area) we found our way to the actual test kitchen.  This test kitchen, we were told, is normally reserved for franchise owners and advertisers that come in to get a first hand look at new menu items.  We were greeted by Taco Bell food innovators Kat and Megan. It was pretty interesting to be in a room listening to the top dogs of the Taco Bell menu creation.

Being served Volcano menu items and some Q and A

Being served Volcano menu items and some Q and A

We were shown television commercials for the two new Volcano Menu items and given a detailed explanation of how the Volcano menu and the Lava Sauce came to be.  Before they settled with the cheesy Lava Sauce, some other ideas for a spicier menu item included alterations like spicier seasoned meat and spicier shells/tortillas.  Before the Volcano Menu and the Lava Sauce, there really wasn’t anything hot enough to satisfy the taste buds of those who can really take the heat.  The Scoville Scale was brought up (a heat measure) and the Volcano Lava Sauce (800 SHU-Scoville Heat Units) was compared to Taco Bell’s Fire Sauce (500 SHU) in terms of heat.  If you want to learn more about spicy foods and someone who really knows spicy food, check out Scott Roberts’ site.  The thing you have to remember that it’s not just heat, it’s taste.  Give me a cheesy hot sauce on a taco/burrito any day over just plain hot sauce.  The bottom line is that the Lava Sauce packs the heat and is tasty to match.  We were told the Volcano Menu will be introducing a new family member on August 3rd. My money is on a Volcano Crunchwrap.  It’s a no brainer, the Crunchwrap is one of the most popular menu items at Taco Bell and it’s sure to be a success as a Volcano item.

Lava Sauce waiting to be drizzled on a Crunchwrap Supreme...hmmm...August 3rd perhaps?

Lava Sauce waiting to be drizzled on a Crunchwrap Supreme...hmmm...August 3rd perhaps?

Talking about the Volcano Box...(as if I haven't already reviewed it...hehe)

Talking about the Volcano Box...(as if I hadn't already reviewed it...hehe)

The original Volcano item...The Volcano Taco

The original Volcano item...The Volcano Taco

The Volcano Double Beef Burrito...My new favorite.

The Volcano Double Beef Burrito...My new favorite.

Grubbing in the Taco Bell Test Kitchen

Grubbing in the Taco Bell Test Kitchen

When the presentations were complete, we were invited to create something of our own.  This was a pretty tough task considering how many options were available.  Creations that crossed my mind included a Volcano Chicken Crunchwrap and a Volcano-style Chicken Nachos.  The Origami-esque Crunchwrap creation seemed a bit too intimidating to me so I settled for creating what I’m calling Fully Loaded Cheesy Volcano Chicken Nachos. It’s tortilla chips smothered with nacho cheese, a grated cheese blend and strips of marinated chicken put in the 8-second heater to give it an extra melt and then topped with pico de gallo, Lava Sauce and cooled down with some sour cream.  It was a thing of beauty and after my Volcano Taco and Volcano Double Beef Burrito I still finished the nachos.  All that spicy food was cooled down with a Pina Colada Fruitista Freeze.

My Creation: Fully Loaded Cheesy Volcano Chicken Nachos

My Creation: Fully Loaded Cheesy Volcano Chicken Nachos

After all that Lava Sauce, I cooled thing down with the newest Fruitista Freeze: Pina Colada

After all that Lava Sauce, I cooled thing down with the newest Fruitista Freeze: Pina Colada

There was a lot of Q and A in the test kitchen although a bunch unconfirmed…

  • Any chance of a Mexican Sandwich aka Torta?  It could happen.  It’s been considered.
  • What about a Taco Bell Breakfast menu?  Currently going through testing.
  • Is the next Volcano menu item a Volcano Crunchwrap?  Can’t say just yet.
  • Any new Mt. Dew exclusives coming?  There’s always something going on behind the scenes.
taco-bell-building-sign

Goodbye friend...

To wrap everything up, I’d just like to thank everyone involved once again.  It was a very interesting inside-look into the fast food giant.  I can’t say enough good things about the experience.  Now I know what some may be thinking…Can you be critical about Taco Bell after a trip like this?  The answer is yes, of course.  It definitely helps that I’m a Taco Bell fan, but if there’s something that doesn’t vibe with me, I’ll give my opinion on it (I wasn’t a fan of the Triple Steak Burrito that came out late last year).  The bottom line is that we are all critics.  Something I love can also be something someone else hates.  I’m just here to give my personal take on things and if you enjoy reading about it, I appreciate your opinions and comments as well.

Thanks to Lauren, Deb and Will for having us out.

(If you’d like to see more pics, there is a photo album up on my Facebook page.  Let’s be friends.  Oh yeah, also, I took video of the trip but I’ve had a nightmare time editing it.  Lots of shaky-cam to give Cloverfield a run for it’s money.  Sorry, new camera.  I’ll post it up as a bonus or something someday if I get it somewhat watchable without a barf bag)

26 comments on “Taco Bell Headquarters and Test Kitchen: Irvine, California

  1. Adam says:

    Dude that place looks awsome!

  2. Adam Bomb says:

    Looks like you had a great time. Thanks for letting us live vicariously through your trip! At the risk of being lambasted, I don’t really like the Crunchwraps. I’m hoping for something else to be added to the Volcano menu, but I’ll bet you’re right about it being the Crunchwrap. Everyone but me seems to love them.

  3. I hate you :P I’m SO insanely jealous.

    The TB breakfast menu would be such a good idea for them…I’ve always wondered why they didn’t have one!

    Is Deb related to “The Bell” or is that coincidence?

    What was the high highlight of the trip for you? What did they others create and did you try them?

  4. Ryan says:

    @ Bear … Have no idea if she’s related to “The Bell”…I was thinking the same thing. Tough to pick a highlight for the trip…it was a whirlwind…The visit to the test kitchen was kinda surreal. Elie from FoodBeast created some sort of Volcano-Style Salad, John from Epic Portions created a Volcano Chicken Quesadilla and Scott from ScottRobertsWeb created what he dubbed Volcano “Potchos”…Volcano-style nachos with potatoes…it all looked good but I didn’t try any of them. I was beyond stuffed already.

  5. rob says:

    I don’t like the Crunchwrap either, too dense for my tastes. I have the same problem with their stuffed burritos.

    I like my American-style Mexican food more loosey goosey.

  6. EFC says:

    awesome read. a TB breakfast menu would be INSANE — my mom loves that big nasty breakfast burrito from mcdonalds, i know alot of people that crave that type of stuff for breakfast

  7. Excellent write-up, Ryan. Just to clarify the Taco Bell breakfast menu possibility – TB did test out breakfast items in certain markets in 1992 (one such location was Eureka, MO restaurant, where I had worked for 3 or 4 months right after high school). The food offerings weren’t extensive, but from what I recall it was mainly burritos with tater tots, sausage, or eggs as core ingredients. I do remember the advertising on outdoor signage featured a red stop sign and green stop light and read something along the lines of “STOP in for breakfast. Get lunch to GO” (what’s funny is that Subway tried out breakfast a year or so later that had copied the verbiage almost word-for-word). Needless to say, sales were presumably poor and that TB location didn’t keep breakfast there very long

    • Ryan says:

      @ Scott … Cool thanks for the info. Yeah, I’ve seen the breakfast burritos before and I’ve actually seen some sort of Breakfast-style quesadillas in the past. It would be sweet if the current testing is in an effort to make it a nationwide thing because I’ve only seen the aforementioned items and have never had the chance to try them. All that being said, I love breakfast burritos.

  8. Marianne says:

    mmmm … how about a TB breakfast item like Anita’s breakfast burritos … love those!

  9. @Scott – I just saw a banner at my local Subway stating that they’ll be starting to serve breakfast. WTF?!? I’ve never seen this at any other Subway nor have I seen any ads for it. I guess they have some sort of egg sangwiches….dunno.

  10. Ryan says:

    @ Bear/Scott … My local Subways have had breakfast items for a couple years now. Never tried any of it though. They might go well as much as Subway Pizzas…haven’t tried that either but I don’t hear good things about it. Not shocked though.

  11. Yeah seriously….wtf?!? They don’t need to try and be all up in my bizznasss.

  12. The Subway at Indianapolis International had breakfast. Qdoba has an awesome breakfast burrito and quesadilla!

    Great post Ryan, it looks like you had a great time and learned a lot about TB in the process. Did the go over the Taco Tia stands? Ha! I watched an hour special on TB once, very cool. For some odd reason I have been craving TB lately… great report, I felt like I was right with you!

  13. Ryan says:

    @ WIBIA … Thanks man…it was a cool experience. Yeah…Taco Tia stands…to hot dogs to burgers to chili dogs..to Tacos!!!…to Taco Bell…the sale to PepsiCo…all within the history lesson. Thanks for the heads up on Qdoba breakfast…I’ve got to check it out…actually now I’m gazing upon it … http://www.qdoba.com/MenuItem.aspx?p=breakfast

  14. Adam Bomb says:

    Subway breakfast……eeeewwwwwww. The egg looks like a yellow kitchen sponge! I’ve seen their breakfast stuff sitting there behind the glass before, and it does NOT look appetizing or even edible.

  15. Raiders757 says:

    That looked like a lot of fun.

    I do have to ask. Just what is the base ingredient of the “lava sauce”. I am an avid hater of mayo and not much of a fan sour cream(but will eat SC from time to time). When I hear “sauce”, or “secrete sauce” I tend to shy away from said item. I don’t like crap/sauce added to my food if I can’t positively identify what it’s made up of. If said sauce is of a creamy texture, one can almost bet that mayo is involved. I cant’ imagine Taco Bell using that vile spooge, but I still have to wonder. Until I find out, the volcano menu is out of the question for me.

    • Ryan says:

      @ Raiders757 … Yeah it was a cool experience. I don’t know the exact ingredients of the lava sauce but I’d say the base ingredient is cheese. It’s sorta like a cheesy fire sauce but hotter.

  16. Chris says:

    I remember in the early 90s, my local Taco Bell in Dublin, Ohio, served breakfast. I think it was mostly just breakfast burritos, but they were delicious!

  17. Chris says:

    @ Raiders757 YES…that mayo flavored sauce on the TB Quesadillas makes me a little nauseated (I think it’s similar to the yucky sauce on the KFC snack wrap.)

  18. […] until I read the about how they opened their test kitchen for WIBIA friends, Epic Portions and Grub Grade. Since then, Taco Bell has been on my mind and sounding pretty good…your plan worked Taco […]

  19. […] read more about the Taco Bell experience and see other photos check out Grub Grade, Endless Simmer, Pleasure Palate, Fast Food News, Epic Portions, Scott Roberts and Food Beast. […]

  20. terry says:

    I LOVE taco bell’s Nacho cheese sauce…is there anyone who makes a similiar product in the grocery store that tastes like it???

    I don’t have any taco bells in my area….any help would be appreciated. I need my cheese!

  21. Tim says:

    You might be interested to know…that Taco Bell in San Bruno, CA that they had a brick from isn’t really the first one. The real first Taco Bell was in Downey, CA. The building is still standing today as Raul’s Tacos and Seafood.

  22. fermina says:

    trying to submit a comment to HQ, to let you now you should bring back Bellbeefers, they were great, the best thing that I used to order all the time, back in the 70’s.

  23. […] Simmer Epic Portions Fast Food News Food Beast Grub Grade Scott Roberts So […]

  24. […] they’re absolutely failures at creating new things. Maybe they should just hire Ryan, his Fully Loaded Cheesy Volcano Chicken Nachos have been the best looking thing to come out of the Taco Bell kitchen since they released their […]

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