August 7, 2017
Every once in a while we in the preservation community can do with a pick me up; a preservation story where in spite of the challenges, people’s better nature prevails. And honestly that is the case with our guests this week, Matt Prince of Taco Bell and Katie Rispoli Keaotamai of We Are The Next. With the support of Taco Bell, the local conservancy of Downey, California, and countless taco-loving citizens, Katie and Matt spearheaded the movement to save the building that was home to the very first Taco Bell. Stick around to hear how a few individuals and a corporate citizen who is willing to listen made national news. This is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] When people hear “historic building,” they tend to think of old rowhomes or out-of-the-way farm houses. But the truth is, these aren’t the only cultural landmarks that need saving. Matt Prince and Katie Rispoli Keaotamai are here to tell the story of how they saved the Numero Uno Taco Bell from demolition. Between the logistics of a multi-district building move and the community engagement with this tangible and tasty preservation project, Katie and Matt have a lot to taco about. This is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] Hi, this is Nick Redding and you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined by friends talking to us all the way from California from the West Coast. We have Matt Prince, who’s the manager of PR and brand engagement for the Taco Bell corporation and we have Katie Rispoli Keaotamai, who is the executive director of the organization We Are the Next and the founder of that organization. And so we’re talking with them today about this interesting project that got a lot of national attention of preservation of the world’s first Taco Bell. But before we get to that, we thought we would give the folks that are joining us today an opportunity to just sort of introduce themselves a little bit. Katie, we’ve had you on the podcast before, but why don’t you give our listeners a quick reminder of who you are and the work that you do at We Are the Next?
[Katie Rispoli Keaotamai] Sure, Nick, thanks for having me. So We Are The Next we, as you mentioned, are a non-profit organization. We’re based in Long Beach, California and we provide social justice and youth development programs for teens and young adults in the Long Beach region. So we work pretty much in the south half of LA County.
[NR] That’s awesome. And when we talked to you before, we kind of went in depth about your work and the really unique ways in which you’re engaging the youth community around these big issues and also talking about historic preservation, which is really great. And I know after that conversation I just was sort of jealous of what you guys are doing out there and trying to think about ways in which we could try and duplicate some of that here in Maryland. I think there’s a lot of really great parallels that preservationists around the country can draw from your work. And I would encourage everyone listening, if you haven’t listened to that interview, go back and check that one out.
Matt, you’re the manager of PR and brand engagement for Taco Bell. Sort of an unlikely preservationist, I would say. But how did you get to where you are and how did you end up becoming a preservationist? Or do you even consider yourself one?
[Matt Prince] I do now, thanks to Katie and thanks to Numero Uno. But I’ve been at Taco Bell for about three years and everything with Numero Uno and saving the first Taco Bell happened within pretty much Year One of that. So it was a really great way to learn a lot about the history of the brand. And in all the research that we did, I think in that time, I quickly became probably the most knowledgeable person here in the Taco Bell headquarters of Taco Bell history. And so I actually was given the somewhat artificial title of Historian of Taco Bell, which I carry very proudly. But yeah it’s been – it’s an amazing three years. The role that I have is focused on media relations and public affairs, so this was a perfect opportunity to mix the two and save some history.
[NR] And this was sort of – I mean, I know your bio is pretty cool. You’ve worked for a lot of great, different organizations, government and private sector with Disney. I’ve also read that you are somewhat responsible for the creation of the taco emoji, which I think there are countless Americans who greatly appreciate that contribution to texting but was this your first time really involved in preservation?
[MP] Yeah, it really was. My first job out of college I worked for the city of Anaheim and my main project and campaign that I worked on was the city’s 150th anniversary. So that was the first kind of dip of my toe into the history of a brand or a city and I enjoy – I mean I love history. I live in an 80-year-old house and I work on it. When you have that kind of closeness with history and again that’s our history of like 80 years and 100 years, 150 years. That doesn’t even count all the amazing history obviously that’s happened way before then, that we in Southern California don’t always have the luxury of having around us. But no it’s an amazing, interesting piece that I’m happy that I’ve been able to have that in my career and my portfolio because it’s been amazingly fun. You learn so much and it’s just – it’s very humbling I think in every sense of the term when you learn that much about where you’ve been and how you got to where you are.
[NR] Yeah, well let’s jump into it and I don’t know I mean you said that you’re the sort of the honorary Taco Bell historian so maybe you would be the one who’d grab this question, but what should we know about the first Taco Bell or what you’re referring to as “Numero Uno”? Where is it? How old is it? And then maybe: Why does it matter? I mean who wants to take a stab at that one?
[MP] Yeah, I mean I guess I’ll go first. So –
[NR] Go right ahead!
[MP] Taco Bell was founded in 1962 by a gentleman by the name of Glen Bell and it was located in Downey, California. The restaurant was a walk-up window about 400 square feet in total, probably no bigger than the size of a two car garage. And for Glen, this was his third – or I think third really restaurant venture. Before Taco Bell he had El Taco, before then he had Taco Tia and actually before that he had Bell’s Burgers and Hot Dogs.
[NR] Did they succeed or were they not… Did he kind of close those and then move on to Taco Bell?
[KRK] Do you mind if I jump in, is that ok?
[NR] Sure yeah, please do.
[KRK] So Glen founded Bell’s Burgers as his really first venture but then felt like he was competing too much with McDonald’s brothers. He actually founded Bell’s Burgers in San Bernardino and it was located just right up the road from the original McDonald’s and so he felt like he was playing into the same market. Saw a Mexican restaurant in San Bernardino that made tacos and had traditional Mexican food, but it wasn’t something where non-Mexican people would eat there. It was something where – you know it was very foreign, it very much played to like only the real Mexican population of San Bernardino, which has always been fairly strong, and so he looked at what they were doing and thought he might be able to transform that food into something that would be more acceptable and from familiar for the White community there. So he sort of transformed their traditional Mexican dishes, primarily tacos, into a more Americanized version and created Taco Tia, which was his first.
So Taco Tia actually grew to have several locations and it’s still running. It’s just that he wasn’t really meshing well with his business partners in that venture and then decided to go solo, but ended up working with a different business partner anyway on El Taco. Then [he] also wasn’t really meshing well with his business partners on El Taco and that’s when he really was like “I’m kind of a one-man-show. I should just go be Glen Bell and start my own thing.” And so that’s when he started Taco Bell.
But Taco Tia and El Taco are actually both still operating. Taco Tia operates in San Bernardino where he originally was starting his fast food ventures and El Taco still operates in Downey where Taco Bell was founded as well as a couple of other surrounding cities. But neither of them have any affiliation with Taco Bell and Glen Bell was not involved with them by 1962 at the time in which he founded Taco Bell.
[NR] Okay. So the Numero Uno store which I guess was the first true Taco Bell, it dates from 1962?
[KRK] Yes. And by the time construction was finished – so he started planning it in very early 1962 and opened in March or something like that?
[KRK] March in 1962. By that time, he had already started construction on a couple of additional Taco Bells. So it was starting very quickly. I mean, you asked before what’s one thing we really should know about the Taco Bell? And the one thing that I always really point to is that in the process of saving Numero Uno, I did a historic structure report on the building and did some research as part of that project and the one thing that I found that really stood out to me is that as far as I’ve been able to find, Taco Bell seems to be the largest and oldest fast food corporation in the U.S. founded on a franchise business model.
So other companies had franchises before Taco Bell had franchises, of course, but they were originally single location type businesses and then once franchises were sort of invented and put into place other companies started adopting them for their existing restaurants and started growing their business that way. Versus Taco Bell by that point, 1962, Glen Bell had seen other people do franchises and sort of experimented with them through El Taco and took that idea from the very beginning and thought, “I’m going to create a massive empire of this food and it’s going to be huge and I’m going to start with this store and then franchise out.” So by the time he was finishing construction on the first one, which was this teeny-tiny sort of experiment, he had already gotten a couple of other people to do franchises. So he was already underway with construction of additional Taco Bells by the time this one was celebrating its grand opening.
[NR] Well, I mean, this is all really fascinating. First, I’m sensing that there’s a Taco Bell history book coming. I mean, there has to be and you both need to write it together, I think. But I will also say for Matt’s benefit, I just really want Taco Bell right now. So, obviously, whatever it is that you guys are doing with this it makes a lot of sense because obviously we just keep talking about Taco Bell and I want them, our producer here he wants them, everybody listening I’m sure they want them. So good work in that regard. What happened? So you got some background, we have the history: 62. Glen Bell. The franchising. Very cool, tiny little pilot project. First place, Numero Uno.
Then what happens? Let’s fast forward to the present. What creates a problem? Why do we have to save this? What was about to happen to it?
[KRK] So the property owners who owned the site where the Taco Bell was located have owned that land for over a 100 years. They’re actually one of the original ranchos meaning that when California was essentially purchased from the Spanish, a variety of people received Spanish land grants before it even became a state, actually, in that process. And different families received land grants that amounted to thousand and thousands of acres and one of those land grants eventually made its way to the Andrews family. So there is The Andrews Rancho, which still exists in Downy. I think at this point fourth, fifth generation family business. I’m not entirely positive about that but it’s very long-lived.
So anyway, they’ve owned land for many years and in 1962 Glen Bell approached them about leasing a portion of their land to build the Taco Bell, and they agreed, and he built his building on their land. And then, eventually, Taco Bell as a corporation decommissioned the building, and it was no longer a functioning Taco Bell. It actually then became a series of other Mexican restaurants, was leased, but it was always owned by the original property owner. Glen, although he built the building on their property and he owned the business in the building, they owned the actual building itself. He never owned the building because that wasn’t how their deal worked, so he was simply a tenant. So they had other tenants in the building after Taco Bell left in the late 1980s all the way until – was it 2014? At the end of the year, the business that was in there was asked to relocate because at that point, everything else on the fairly large parcel where the Taco Bell was located either had been torn down or was in disrepair, and the family had plans to raze everything on the land in order to do something more productive with the economic value of the property.
It was a huge parcel and, literally, the only functioning thing left on it was this little 400-square front, for all intents and purposes, taco shack. And it really didn’t make sense to keep everything there. So they were very generous about it. They recognized that there was value in the building, and they approached the local conservancy, The Downey Conservancy, and let them know that if there was any opportunity for someone to move the building or to do something with it, they were open to that, and they would give them time to make arrangements. So they issued a press release, which went to the local paper which received easily 100 times the normal clickbait article leads on that local paper’s website. That caught the attention of Taco Bell, who then roped in Matt, or Matt got involved in that way. So from there, I’ll let Matt take it on.
[NR] Yeah, and I think that that’s actually a great spot for us, maybe, to take a quick break. And then when we come back, we’ll pick up with this and hear about how a big corporation like Taco Bell made a decision to get involved and why they decided something like this mattered. And so we’ll talk with Matt and Katie more when we come back, right here on PreserveCast.
[Stephen Israel] Katie and Matt sure are getting me in the mood for Taco Bell. But California’s not the only origin point for amazing fast food. Let’s take a look at some historical fast food joints from right here in Maryland! Like many great stories of modern Maryland history, ours begins with the Baltimore Colts.
It’s the 1950s, and two of the biggest names in professional sports are Colts players Gino Marchetti and Alan “The Iron Horse” Ameche. In 1958, these two men cemented their legacies in the world of football for their successes in the greatest game ever played when the Baltimore Colts won over the New York Giants at the 1958 NFL championship game. Ameche actually scored the winning touchdown, but the year before, the two men made a decision that may have had a bigger impact on their lives after football than any single game in their career could have.
They joined together along with their friend, Louis Fisher, to start serving people burgers. By 1959, they decided to take the company public, and Gino lent his name to create Gino’s Hamburgers. It didn’t take long for Gino’s to expand, and in 1967, they merged with a similar 18-location D.C.-area burger chain, Tops Drive-Inn, and from this merger Gino’s gained its signature sandwich: the Sir Loiner.
Not to be outdone by his friend and partner’s success, Alan “The Iron Horse” Ameche opened his own separate chain in 1960. This smaller five-restaurant drive-in chain was simply called Ameche’s Drive-In or for many any locals “Om-cheese.” They feature the Powerhouse Burger, which pre-dated the Big Mac and food was delivered by a car hop who brought a clip-on tray straight to your window. And former Colts weren’t the only ones in the local fast food scene, either.
In 1979, Theodore Holmes founded the first Chicken George in Mondawmin Mall. And by 1982, Chicken George had nine locations and franchises as far as Atlanta, Georgia, and Los Angeles, California. They served fried chicken, gumbo, fish and chips, greens, biscuits, and notably, refused to use any pork products in their food. The Baltimore Sun reported it as the largest Black-owned fast food chain in the country at its peak.
But, of course, all things change with time and as national chains grew larger through the 1980s, regional fast food struggled. Ameche’s has since closed. Chicken George declared bankruptcy in 1991 and even Gino’s was eventually sold to Marriott, who decided to convert all the locations to Roy Roger’s restaurants. In 2010, Gino Marchetti and Fischer decided to resume business and there are still two locations open. One up in Towson and down in Glen Burnie. Not to mention plenty of other growing regional classics like Hip Hop Fish and Chicken. All this has got my stomach rumbling, and I know you guys have to get back to PreserveCast.
Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast you’ve thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll try and answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Reding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We are joined today by Matt Prince of Taco Bell Corporation as well as Katie Rispoli Keaotamai of We Are the Next. And we’re talking about the preservation of Numero Uno, the very first Taco Bell restaurant in the United States. And so when we left off, Katie had just done a really good job of explaining not only the history of some of the Taco Bell corporation but also how we got to the point where the building, the little 400-square-foot Taco Bell restaurant, was threatened. And so Matt, do you want to pick up with – maybe give us a sense for how the decision was made in the Taco Bell corporation and why you decided it would be a good investment of your resources to save this structure?
[MP] Yeah, absolutely. So every morning I lead a meeting first thing in the morning at nine o’clock here at the headquarters. It’s called our Daily Stand-Up Meeting. And what we do is we review any of the past Taco Bell coverage for the past 24 hours. We also dip into competitor coverage and things like that. The goal is to walk out of there more informed than when you walked in to do your job.
And so I remember that day we were going over the news coverage and we had picked up in our social listening a post from the Downey Patriot in a story of how the first Taco Bell was in threat of being demolished. And so as soon as that meeting ended, the first thing I did – the first thing on my mind – I never even thought, “Hey, let’s go move this building to another location and save it.” The thought was, “Let’s just buy this land and reopen the Taco Bell.” And that’s the first thing that came to my mind because to me that seemed more feasible from actually moving a building. So I called the real estate agent within, I think, 30 minutes of that meeting ending and we got the conversation started there. Clearly, that path was not the right one and that land was not for sale. But we got connected with the Downey Conservancy and I remember going to one of their monthly meetings at a Sizzler located in Downey and I met Katie for the first time and obviously that’s where our true friendship started. But that’s where also we really kicked off this plan to figure out whatever way possible to save this building.
[NR] So who actually came up with the plan? Was that you, Katie?
[KRK] Well, so I got roped in because I had recently relocated a historic train depot in Long Beach. At the time I was working in construction and I had been helping to do some renovation projects on historic properties, that being one of them. And the folks over at the Downey Conservancy knew me because I actually am a Downey resident, so I live in Downey just a couple of miles away from where the first Taco Bell used to stand. And they knew me as a preservation advocate who worked in the local area and they asked if I would be willing to come to a meeting with Taco Bell since I had experience moving buildings. They didn’t know if that would be possible but I got a vague e-mail from George Redfox, who’s their board president saying, “Hypothetically if we were about to move a building that was about this big, what would that look like?” And I was like, “There are so many variables in that I can’t tell you right off the top of my head.” And so he said, “Why don’t you come to this meeting with us and find out?”
So I showed up to the Sizzler and so did Matt. I distinctly remember he was wearing bright green pants, which I felt like, “Man, I’m going to love him [laughing].” So we got along great, started talking through all the details and it really seemed like Taco Bell was behind it, which I was genuinely pleased by and felt there was a promising opportunity there. The Downey Conservancy really is a super small, your typical local preservation group, but very, like, homegrown grassroots doesn’t have a lot of resources. They’re all people who volunteer in their spare time. You know, they all have full-time jobs. So they sort of just meet monthly to advocate for preservation in Downey, but they didn’t have the ability to really act. And so by getting us both roped in, they sort of handed over the reigns and we – me and Matt – sort of just went from there.
[NR] And so what was the decision? And, I guess, it sounds like Taco Bell just kind of went alon and they couldn’t buy it, so they decided that they were going to move it. And, I mean, did Taco Bell end up putting up the dollars to really make that happen and then finding the location where it would land?
[MP] Yeah. I mean, it was a really interesting journey. It wasn’t just Day One, “Hey, this building exists. We can move it. Let’s do it, yes or no?” It was, “Okay. Can this building even successfully handle a move of that magnitude, going 40 miles down to Irvine or wherever we were to move it?” I think it was probably a full year of getting people to buy into the fact that we should do this and I heard “no” a lot, in this building quite a bit, actually. The initial thought was I was bringing the development people over to walk in the building and they can look at it and say, “Hey, could we move this to another location and open it up as a Taco Bell?” And they said, “No. It’s not worth it. The building is old. It’s falling apart. It’d be easier to do this.” And it wasn’t until I presented to the CEO and the executive team and said, “Listen, this is a part of our history. Like, this is the number one. This is Numero Uno. We have 7,000 restaurants today around the world and this is, literally, where it all started. And if you’re not willing to save that piece of history then, that’s really sad. That’s sad for the Taco Bell fans. That’s sad for the brand.”
And as soon as I kind of tugged in the heartstrings and attached everything to Glen Bell and his story and where we are today, I mean, it was the easiest yes that our CEO probably had to make. You know, I always love talking about the fact that this Taco Bell, the first Taco Bell, can now fit in the CEO’s office of Taco Bell headquarters. It’s just an amazing picture to have in your head. I’m sure Glen Bell had grand visions of success for Taco Bell, but I don’t know if he thought in 55 years it would be able to fit inside of the CEO’s office. So it just goes to show the journey of the brand and everything. And when you walk the hallways and you tell people the story of Glen Bell, their eyes light up, it’s exciting. I mean, he truly is. We have his picture all over our a wall and everyone knows that the first restaurant was in Downey and it was in 1962. So when we had the thought to move it, everyone was on board.
[NR] So why don’t you catch us up – maybe Katie can – where does the story end? What ended up happening? And where did it moved to? And where is it today?
[KRK] Well, so the first thing that we did was try to figure out of we could do it, right? So how plausible was this? I mean, obviously, there’s always a way to move something in terms of its materials, but it was a matter of what’s the building going to look out after we put it through travel? Are we going to damage it beyond repair? And then, also looking at what is the possibility of where could it be placed and what’s the logistics of making that happen?
So I had so much fun with this because well now it was trying to get “No’s” turned into “Yes’s” at Taco Bell headquarters he bought me a lot of time by saying, “Okay. So what we’re going to do is find a preliminary study and do a structure report. Find out how historic this thing really is. Figure out what the logistics would be to move it. What the condition would be after the move. Where it could go. And then, we can decide ‘yes’ or ‘no’ once we know all those things.” So while he was working on building support for the idea over here in Irvine, I was scouting for parcels where we could move it. I worked at the city a little bit in Downey trying to find store yards and county lands. Anything they had that they would let us put the building on, even on a temporary basis. We tried looking at some different parcels that were for sale. We even looked at some Taco Bells that were about to be built in the area and explored the idea of putting the building next to a new Taco Bell and, maybe, creating some sort of symbiosis there.
In the end, none of those panned out and we were in a serious time crunch because the property owners had given us a deadline of December 1st, 2015 to move the building. And we had agreed to that. About, I think, seven, eight months before we had signed an agreement saying that “Yes, if we didn’t get it figured out by then they could come in with bulldozers on that day.” And they’d been very generous by giving us, I think, was several months to do that. So we did all of our research. We scouted for land. That didn’t work. And in the meantime, I also plotted what it was going to look like to move. So I got on the phone with Caltrans and with the state office. Talked to building movers.
We figured out that if we couldn’t get land in Downey, other nearby cities. We looked at Long Beach, Bell Gardens, Hawaiian Gardens, other cities were Glen Bell had had a presence in the beginning of Taco Bell’s history and couldn’t really make anything work there either and so our last resort, of course, was Taco Bell Headquarters. And at that point, we decided to come here. We were only 45 days out from our demolition deadline. We were literally less than two months away. And I needed a solid month and a half to get all the permits. So I remember we got approval, seriously, right before we were ready to kick into gear. And I had at that point, about 35 days to get nine cities that we would have to drive through their jurisdiction, two county lines, CHP, Caltrans, and multiple other agencies to give us permits for traffic, right-of-ways, escorts, and all of the required legal authorization. And so I went into gear on that while Matt got everything squared away and he had made those nos turn into yeses right at the nick of time. So I spent that last 35 days or so before December 1st in a heat of pulling permits, visiting every city hall between – oh, actually, it was twelve cities not nine cities. Between the 47-mile drive, deciding what the route was going to be, making sure the freeway overpasses weren’t going to clip the top of the building, changing our route when they were going to clip the top of the building. It was an intense month or so. And then, we ended up moving it on November 19th. So we literally barely came by on December 1st. And we got it done right before Thanksgiving, and the world checked out for the holidays. It was awesome.
[NR] Well, I was going to ask what the biggest challenge was, but think we cleared that one up, what the biggest challenge was [laughter]. And it’s funny, this is a reoccurring theme, and Katie, I know you’re a preservationist through- and-through and you hear this all the time, it’s like, the preservation or rehab of a historic structure is invariably always much harder than the actual building in that initial structure. I’m certain Glen Bell didn’t have to go through twelve cities planning processes to erect the first Taco Bell [laughter]. If only Glen Bell could see the lengths to which people are going to save this initial structure, I’m sure he would be smiling right now.
[KRK] Well, so it’s funny you say that because he did actually pull permits to build the first building. So we do have building permits, but the building was pretty much thrown together by him and a friend of his who was a general contractor. They like, no joke, went to the hardware store, bought a bunch of wood, sheets of plywood, everything they needed. They just threw it up over the course of a month or so just to see what it would look like so he could really have a showcase to get other people interested in building their next franchise Taco Bells. It was just the quickest, most cheaply thrown-together taco shack anybody’s ever seen. So for us, that was part of why we were so concerned it might not make it through the move.
[NR] Right. This was not a very substantial historic structure. This was extremely vernacular. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, Matt, you’re the PR guy, so I have to ask this question. What was the public response like? Was it worth it for Taco Bell?
[MP] Oh, without a question. I mean even if we did this in the middle of the night, which we did. And even if nobody showed up, which they did. They followed us throughout the entire hour and a half journey from Downey to the headquarters and people were on the corners with signs and screaming and there were helicopters overhead. Even if none of that hoopla took place, it obviously still would have been really worth it from a brand’s perspective. Again, this is our history and our heritage and that was the right decision. It was the right decision to do. It was just icing on the cake to see how passionate people were and how appreciative people were.
[NR] Any analytics on that to suggest what this was like for you in terms of… I’m sure you guys track those sorts of things, what kind of experience this was? What the public reaction was in terms of numbers?
[MP] We monitor on social media what we call “passion index.” So it’s the type of words people are using and positive versus negative sentiment. And this was really the first campaign that we ever had that had 100 percent passion index. And so that was really cool to see because we had never seen that before. People were just positive. We saw a lot of people come out of the woodworks and say, “I worked at this location.” Or, “I remember going to this location with my grandparents and it was the first time they ever had a taco.” Or, “I remember going to this location after a prom.” And you had all of these stories come out that were just really great. You had pretty much a bunch of years of history that people were thankful that we were able to share. Even if you had never been to that restaurant, that individual restaurant, people were still able to recall their first Taco Bell experience. And that nostalgia just really allowed people to remember that this brand is 55 years old and they’ve been around for a while and they’ve been doing it one of the longest in the business. So, I remember Katie and I were in my truck. We were following the CHP and I had a live-stream camera mounted in the back of my truck that was basically over the cab of the truck and we were live-streaming the whole thing. As soon as we took off, and we were driving right behind it, Katie and I were both shaking and it was just so intense. And you could hear helicopters above us, there was light shining, there were people screaming. I imagine this is the closest it gets to feeling like a rock star, and it was the best thing that I ever felt.
[NR] Taco rock star. Yeah, absolutely [laughter].
[KRK] I have to throw in for this. So Matt is one of the most Zen calm people you will ever meet in your whole life. He’s eerily at peace, and the man doesn’t even drink coffee. He’s perfectly put-together. So I’ve never seen, through everything – deciding we were going to move this building 47 miles to walking it for the very first time – you talk to Matt and he’s always just like, “Yeah, we could do that.” He just always seems so calm. So he was going to drive and we were going to drive right behind the building. And I had been standing next to the building when they started driving away. And Matt had parked his car all the way on the other side of the lot, which as I mentioned, it’s a pretty large piece of land that the building was on. So that wasn’t super close. And he had parked it over there, and we were both standing there, watching this truck drive away, and then he looked at me, and I was like, “Aren’t we supposed to be behind that?” And he just bolted, like ran to his truck all the way on the other side of land and I turned around and before I knew it, Matt’s pulling up next to me and he just throws open the passenger door and he yells, “Get it!”
We didn’t speak for the first, probably, two miles. Both of us were just sitting there in utter panic, driving behind this Taco Bell because really once you start driving, it’s the moment of truth. If it’s going to pancake [or] something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen pretty much in the beginning. Then we get to this stoplight and we’re all stopped behind the Taco Bell and this woman [laughing]. I’ll never forget this. This woman comes driving the opposite direction and we both had our windows down so we could hear everything on the street. There’s people lined down the street with signs yelling stuff and this woman drives opposite us. So her driver’s side window is right next to Matt’s window on his driver’s side and we just hear her go, “Bye, Taco Bell,” very calmly. And Matt and I both burst into laughter and then from there, we were both really calm. But I think we really needed that icebreaker. It was one of the most jarring, anxiety-driven experiences I’ve ever had.
[NR] That’s awesome. Well, we only have a few minutes here. So as we draw the conclusion, tell us, what’s the Taco Bell today and what do you use it for now? Then also, definitely for Matt, has this changed Taco Bell’s perspective on its own history and do you think that this maybe has changed similar companies’ approach to their own history? Are there any analytical or even just anecdotal evidence that other brands are also kind of looking at that because of the positive experience you’ve had?
[MP] Yeah. I’ll start the second question first. We did a lot of research on other companies first locations and some have had the opportunity to save those and some, unfortunately, have not whether it be due to ownership issues or fires and things like that. So the fact that we had this opportunity to do it was, obviously, a once in a lifetime opportunity and so to be able to do it was amazing and for sure, for me, the highlight of my career. We looked at other brands like Pizza Hut. They saved and relocated their first location to a college campus and they do innovation classes there now, which I think is a really cool way to preserve the history and in letters back to the brand’s tenants. But for us, I think, the next phase for Numero Uno is still to be seen and right now, is kept very snug in basically, our backyard here at the headquarters. I park next to it just about every day to make sure that she’s still doing okay. Our goal is to renovate it and get it like it was back in 1962, restore it to all of its glory.
[NR] So we should stay tuned, I guess, on the next step there.
[MP] Definitely stay tuned because we want to turn it in and give it a really modern twist and do it something very uniquely Taco Bell that only Taco Bell could do. But also, again, represent Glen Bell and make sure that if he was here today, he’d be very proud of what we’ve done and what we’re going to do.
[NR] Katie, are you saving any more fast food joints that we should know about?
[KRK] Right now, no fast food joints. I am working on moving two residential buildings in downtown Long Beach right now, which is pretty fun. So I’m doing some of those and I am also working on a Taco Bell history related project in Long Beach, which I am excited to get Matt roped into. Just to sort of celebrate the company’s presence in Long Beach and their long-lived history. So We Are the Next, our organization and the City of Long Beach are partnering up for that to do a day-long tour tying into that. But my passion really is in vernacular, roadside, cultural icons, and places like that and I think the Taco Bell really has helped me understand where I fit in this game of preservation because I never have been any orthodox preservationist.
[NR] That’s clear [laughter].
[KRK] And – yeah. And I’ve always really struggled to figure out where I do belong in that world and I feel like doing this project really helped me figure out where I wanted to be and what kind of work I was interested in doing. Ever since then, I’ve definitely not been afraid to pursue the wild or the different.
[NR] No. It’s definitely paying off. I think I know I was taken by this story. You brought it up sort of in passing in the first time we interviewed you. And I’m glad we went in-depth because I think there’s just a lot of really good takeaways, I think, for people working across the country, and particularly, people working in the recent past and it can be very difficult sometimes. So to hear a good, positive story and also to hear about a really conscious corporate citizen that was aware of their history and took it seriously, I think that that says a lot about Taco Bell. So as we draw to the conclusion here, we ask everyone before they sign off PreserveCast about their favorite historic place. We’re going to try and keep this away from being Numero Uno because, clearly, it comes across that it is a very favorite historic place of yours. But any other place that you’d like to share?
[KRK] I’ll let Matt go first.
[MP] I was going to let you go first.
[KRK] I’m putting you on the spot. I have too many to pick from, so I need more time.
[MP] You know, I don’t even own a passport, I have never been out of the country, with the exception of Mexico, prior to when you needed a passport to go.
[KRK] Me too.
[MP] So I have not seen old, European, historic… I love D.C. I really like D.C. and I love just the history of the White House itself, the actual building, I think is really fascinating.
[NR] Alright, we’ll take that. That’s a good answer. Katie, what do you got?
[KRK] Okay, so now that Matt got put on the spot to be first, I had more time to think of my answer and I’m finding my wormhole around your “no Numero Uno” rule and my place today is going to be Taco Quickie, which is in Bell Gardens. It’s actually kind of a cousin restaurant to Taco Bell, which was started by an awesome man named Russell, who’s still alive, still runs it. Glen Bell hooked him up with some suppliers, gave him the rights to use Taco Bell’s original recipes in perpetuity and allowed him to open up his own place called Taco Quickie just down the road. So there, it’s a time capsule, it’s completely unaltered, and Russell and his wife, Mary, get up every morning and go and make all the ingredients and make everything fresh. And they still wear the same uniforms they wore in 1964. It’s a miraculous place to visit if anybody ever gets the chance.
[NR] Wow. No, I want to come out and catch up with you and I want to go to Taco Quickie, but I also want to go to Numero Uno. Alright, well, if people wanted to get a hold of either of you, Katie, how can they get in touch with you?
[KRK] So the best way to get in touch with me is by e-mail. People can find me just through our regular e-mail contact at WeAreTheNext.org, but they can also find me on Instagram and Twitter @Next_Nonprofit. Usually, if they sent a DM or anything like that, it usually gets to me.
[NR] Okay, and Matt, I imagine it’s not hard to find Taco Bell. You probably can find one in your neighborhood, but if they wanted to get a hold of you or the folks in brand engagement, how would they do that?
[NR] Well, thank you both for joining us today, for sharing the story, and for all the good work that you’re doing to protect, and interpret, and preserve this important piece of twentieth century history. Really great story and great conversation. Thanks so much.
[KRK] Thanks, Nick.
[MP] Thanks so much.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!
Katie Rispoli Keaotamai founded We Are the Next as a social justice and youth development organization that uses the historic resources of the region of Long Beach, California as an outdoor and all-around-you classroom. The organization’s programs focus around the simple goal — to empower the next generation to engage with their city so that their neighborhoods can thrive.