The new Taco Bell has opened! It was great to see it come to the neighborhood. It replaced.... a Taco Bell. That's right. A newly constructed, stylish(?) Taco Bell is slinging Quesaritos and Cheesy Gordita Crunches on the same corner where a Taco Bell was leveled only months ago. This particular TB sits on the corner of Shepherd Dr. and San Felipe in Houston... basically on the border of tony $River Oaks$ and the old and funky Montrose neighborhood. A great crossroads for late-night revelers headed home from clubs, parties, and quiet rendezvous.
It's a hip, happening area. Always has been. The Galleria is not far away. Downtown is minutes from here. In the old days, Houston's original Comedy Workshop was across the street and a couple of other comedy clubs were close by.
About two blocks from this new Taco Box, there is a Starbucks. For years, across the street from that Starbucks, you could find... wait for it... another Starbucks. (There is also a Starbucks kiosk in the bookstore on that same corner... but who's counting?) Comedian Louis Black took note when he was in town to perform at a nearby Laff Stop. He worked the absurdity of such a thing into one of his most celebrated routines. He called it, "The End of the Universe."
In the spirit of a Starbucks across from a Starbucks, why shouldn't a Taco Bell replace a Taco Bell? But here's what seems unusual. Nothing changed. The previous TB was a big, non-descript box with roughly the same footprint as the new Taco box. Maybe the colors are more bland? The windows are a slightly different size. Did the font change on the sign?
For you dear reader, I bravely ventured inside to see what revolutionary new casual dining experience awaited me. And wow! It was... a Taco Bell! The same Taco Bell. Very Taco Bellish. Were the tables arranged differently? The tile was a different color, I guess. There was a new high-tech, ultra-modern, cooly efficient order kiosk. Takes the humans right out of the equation. (I'm sure there's an app as well.) You can still order at a counter, but no doubt that will be phased out. No humans should come between you and your taco product. I didn't see much difference in the kitchen layout, either. There simply wasn't much difference to be observed from the previous operation. One commenter remarked on Facebook that he understood that the older Taco Bells became too greasy to clean, so they are torn down and replaced.
I tried out the order kiosk - an oversized ipad affair that had a credit card terminal next to it. A touch screen with big pictures of their entire taco product line, the ability to customize your taco product, and suggested side food products to enhance your main taco experience. Fairly simple to use, but just like at the modern grocery store self-checkout, not quite as fast as a well-trained human-type person. Even the ones normally found behind a Taco Bell counter.
But to go to all that trouble, all that expense, and build something that looks almost exactly like every other fast food/"casual dining" concept available today seems absurd. This brand new Taco Box could be mistaken for a Shake Shack. A Starbucks. A Burger King. A KFC. A Pizza Hut.
Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut are owned by a conglomerate known as "Yum" Brands. It was not long ago when you could find a TB, KFC, and PH all crammed into one food box location. It was the Turducken of fast food. Emphasis on that first syllable.
One day in the Yum board room, some weasel in a suit couldn't contain himself. "Hey, what if we shoved one of those Taco places into the same box as a KFC and that other Pizza Shack we own? It will be like a little food court all under one roof! Something for everyone!" And since no one threw up right there on the table, they went with it.
It was a pre-diabetic's paradise. If there wasn't a Golden Corral all-you-can-eat buffet within waddling distance to shovel down trays full of lard enhanced products, you could count on Yum to take you to your happy place. Doctors estimate that 34% of all lap-band surgery business has its origins here.
I'm convinced that in the back of these boxes, there is some big, dystopian machine that is cranking out all of the menu items at once from some mysterious source. Think: Mrs. Lovett's meat pies, or Charlton Heston's desperate warning about exactly where Soylent Green came from.
OK. That's probably not accurate. They probably just buy a tanker truckload of glop direct from Dow Chemical and carefully shape and color each menu item into an appealing and somewhat recognizable form.
It wasn't long before Yum separated out the Pizza Huts. I guess there wasn't the same electric foodie synergy that tied a KFC to a Taco Bell. Who needs a pepperoni pie when you can chase a Doritos Locos Taco Party Pack down with a pint of the Colonel's mashed taters and gravy?
Pizza Hut seems to be dying a slow death. If you're old enough, you might remember how they were THE cool new restaurant to show up in your town. There was a time, kiddies, when pizza was considered wildly exotic to anyone outside of a metropolis that had a "Little Italy" neighborhood. Sure, 'back in the day' there were a couple of family-run Italian restaurants in the big city, but pizza? What was that? Most Texas towns had a Dairy Queen (or equivalent) along with a drive-in like Sonic. The rest was mostly diners and family-run cafes. You knew you had made it when that two-tiered red shingled roof appeared, serving strange, f'reign Italian food along with a salad bar. It didn't hurt that teens found the cozy booths in a dimly lit room a pretty romantic hangout that wasn't a back seat.
But the Hut was always a little behind in its delivery game. Dominos could get one to you in thirty minutes, or it was free. There were some innovations along the way... thick crust, hand-tossed crust, stuffed crust... but the Hut was bleeding out. There were new logos. (Why does management always think that a new logo can resuscitate a company?) Most of the logos revolved around their iconic red roof. In logo form, it mostly resembled a terrible, children's rodeo hat.
Ironically, the Hut is now mostly red-roofless. There are entire websites that chronicle the transformation of those old, classic (and easily recognizable) Huts into... virtually anything. Dr's offices, funeral homes, Asian food places, Mexican food places, free-standing ERs, car rental places... even churches. All completely recognizable by their classic roof lines and/or trapezoidal windows.
Yum abandoned the easily recognizable bright red-roofed Hut in favor of the beige Box. Travelers hungry for a greasy facsimile of pizza are likely to steer into a Hut-converted-into-funeral-parlor. (Those conveyor belt pizza ovens would be super useful for speed-cremations. "Will Grandpa be a carryout or delivered? Does he need wings?")
Now it's just another food box. They stopped being unique or interesting (or tasty) long ago, so it's appropriate that it should be confused with fifty other "casual dining experiences."
But I have strayed from our discussion of Taco Bell. Because it's hard to tell which is which. They truly are all the same.
Yum Brands announced that, in support of Ukraine, they will halt investment in Russia, effectively closing down their many existing KFCs and Pizza Huts there. Seems odd. If we're to defeat the Russians, shouldn't we be encouraging them to order a bucket of deep-fried poultry parts and a pie or two?
Oh, and by the way. That cool new self-service order kiosk at the new Taco Bell? It lost my order. Seriously. But Skippy the Asst. Manager made up for it and threw in an extra taco-shaped product.