How Glen Bell started Taco Bell with just $4,000, made his fortune, and the remarkable turns his life took afterward.
Today, Taco Bell has 5,850 restaurants, employs 153,000 and serves over 36 million customers each week. Yet small businessman Glen Bell started it in 1962 with just $4,000.
Glen, born in 1923, had grown-up poor in the San Bernardino area 60 miles east of Los Angeles, the second of six children. After serving in World War ll, he hoped to build a restaurant chain and in 1951, through trial and error in his tiny hamburger stand, he developed a 19 cent taco.
It was unique and customers loved it, but Glen had no money and took on partners to open more restaurants, as he worked crazy hours to make them a success. But while his partners loved the profits, they didn’t want the risk of opening a chain of restaurants.
In 1962, seeing competitors beginning to copy his Mexican food menu, and knowing he’d soon be 40, if he was ever going to make his move, it was now. He and his wife Marty used their $4,000 in savings and Glen launched Taco Bell.
He then went to banks asking for a loan, but every bank saw his venture as too risky. But rather than give-up, Glen turned to his friends and they loaned him $18,000. Using his and their money, he began opening Taco Bells and reinvesting the profits to open more Taco Bells and to pay his friends back.
Now there was no stopping him. Just three years after opening his first Taco Bell, Glen began to franchise them and by the end of fiscal 1977, 15 years after starting with $4,000, there were 759 Taco Bells in 38 states. (329 company owned, 430 franchised and there were 7,000 employees.)
In May, 1978 PepsiCo, the parent company of Pepsi, Pizza Hut and Frito-Lay (maker of Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos and Lay’s Potato Chips) bought Taco Bell for about $130 million, making 54 year old Glen, who still owned nearly 25% of the chain, a very wealthy man.
Glen had known poverty in his youth and workaholic hours in adulthood and now he would have time to spend with Marty and their two children and an older son by an earlier marriage. He could also pursue his personal interests and could leisurely travel. Life was grand.
But occasionally, Glen’s hands had begun to shake and he tired easily. In 1985, at the age of 62, his doctors told him he had Parkinson’s disease and that his symptoms would grow progressively worse and that there was no cure.
It was a crushing diagnosis. Glen knew eventually his arms and legs would shake and his body would stiffen, sometimes becoming unresponsive to him. He would have trouble with balance and coordination. But there was some good news in the diagnosis. His mind would stay sharp.
No longer active in business, Glen had plenty of time to feel sorry for himself and he did. Then he met David Karle.
David was only 26, but five years earlier, he was in a car accident that left him a quadriplegic. He was however, able to use a lever that operated his electric-powered wheelchair. The two became close friends, often meeting for lunch.
Glen could see David’s physical limitations were much greater than his own and he became very supportive of his friend. Meanwhile, David was an attentive listener for Glen, and as they spoke, Glen came alive, bursting with ideas for creating something special for people to enjoy with their families.
Glen had stopped driving, suffering from the intermittent loss of the use of his legs and feet. But David saw the excitement Glen’s dream brought him and he encouraged him to pursue it. Glen owned a 115-acre parcel of land near his home in the rural San Diego area community of Rancho Santa Fe and he listened to David.
In 1995, that property became Bell Gardens, a magnificent landscaped park and produce farm open to the public. Scented flowers perfumed the air and bloomed in every color of the rainbow, framed by trees, and by a man made lake.
Glen installed paths and a miniature open air train that could seat up to 80 people, who by rail would sit back and visit the park in comfort. Occasionally Glen sat anonymously in the caboose watching and listening to the enjoyment all around him, as his heart swelled with pride.
Other times, in the peace and quiet and in the warmth of the sun, Glen toured the Gardens in a golf cart designed to accommodate his Parkinson’s limitations.
“Creating Bell Gardens gave Glen a focus and a mission,” said David.* “Even after he turned 70, people told me they had a hard time keeping up with him.”
Bell Gardens breathed new life into Glen, and he became actively involved not only there but with 4-H, an organization in which its members, ages 5 to 19, raise farm animals and can participate in computers, science, sewing or other activities of their choice, that bring people together.
Glen first began supporting 4-H in the 1970’s but now he got personally involved in its events. He also supported a local Boy’s and Girl’s Club, the nearby Scripps Hospital, the Salvation Army and made charitable contributions to other organizations as well.
These were some of the most joyful times in Glen’s life.
But in 2002, as he was nearing 80 years old, he donated Bell Gardens to a non-profit group, but they were unable to sustain it and it closed in 2003. Glen died this year at 86, survived by Marty (Martha), three sisters, two sons and a daughter and four grandchildren.
He is also survived by Taco Bell’s thousands of customers and employees and thousands more employees of Taco Bell’s suppliers. Glen is also survived by large numbers of people who were the recipients of his charitable donations.
This man who began of such modest means made a real difference in this world, helping to uplift others in so many ways. Glen had attained his dreams and through the pains he later suffered, he built a more meaningful life, appreciating the many blessings that were his.
Success Tip of the Week:
“Money is not a goal in itself but a means to an end,” said Glen.* “I never saw money as something to own in its own right. It was a tool that enabled me to do other things. Start with a worthwhile dream, one that brings out the best in you and benefits others.
Then use your ingenuity to pursue resources that will make that dream happen.”
*These quotes were taken from Taco Titan: The Glen Bell Story (1999) by Debra Lee Baldwin. In this book Glen, his family and business associates discuss the events that led to his success and of his overcoming the heartache of Parkinson’s, and a book I recommend to you.
In the next KazanToday:
How a girl born into poverty became San Diego’s 1st female surgeon, a friend to Mother Teresa and a founder of a global organization to help the poor .