Wednesday, August 16, 2006

San Bernardino Has Reason to be Proud (insert sarcasm)

The San Bernardino County Sun has never been known for its excellent journalism. Let's not blame that on Freelance Reporter Mark Landis who, in today's paper, gives us a nice, albeit boring, synopsis of Glen Bell, the biography. It's not his fault Glen is boring. Any sane person would assume that someone who's brought us the deliciousness and joy of Taco Bell would have a great story to tell.

Or maybe it is a good story but my propensity for turning up my nose at the world of business leads me to this conclusion. Perhaps those in the San Bernardino area and my faithful readers will find this article more interesting than I.

Either way, I am sure most will concur that boasting of one's town as a "fast-food mecca" is, er, strange.

SB area became fast-food mecca

Mark Landis

For years, innovative local competitors carefully studied the successes of Richard (Dick) and Maurice (Mac) McDonald, the fast-food pioneers who started a dining revolution in 1948 at a tiny hamburger stand at the corner of 14th and E street in San Bernardino.

Glen Bell, an enterprising young serviceman, returned home to the San Bernardino area after World War II and was anxious to start a business of his own. Bell and his best friend, Neal Baker, would sit in the McDonald's parking lot and marvel at the crowds standing in line to buy hamburgers.

"Glen and I would take our wives down there and just watch," said Baker. "One of those times, Glen told me, `I'm going to start a hamburger stand.' I said, `You don't know anything about hamburgers!' "

To which Bell replied, "I know, but you're going to help me build my first restaurant."
Bell opened Bell's Hamburgers in March 1948 at the corner of Oak and Mount Vernon Avenue in San Bernardino. The tiny stand hand-built by Bell and Baker, was the first in a succession of fast food restaurants that evolved into the multibillion-dollar Taco Bell empire.

In 1952, Baker jumped into the fast-food frenzy when he opened his own Baker's Burgers restaurant in San Bernardino. Baker and Bell became "friendly competitors," and Baker went on to open 36 drive-through restaurants around the Inland Empire.

Convinced that the area would soon be saturated with hamburger stands, Bell came up with the novel idea of selling "Mexican fast food" out of his burger stands.

In the infancy of the fast-food movement, pioneers like the McDonald brothers and Glen Bell had to create innovative new methods to cook, assemble and deliver their food. In order to mass produce tacos, Bell came up with an ingenious new method of pre-cooking taco shells.

In his biography, Bell said "I worked with an equipment salesman who contacted a man who made chicken coops. He made a fry basket for me out of chicken wire."

Bell had a knack for choosing great locations, and in 1953, he started a fast-food restaurant in Barstow that sold tacos and hamburgers. When tacos began outselling hamburgers at the Barstow restaurant, he decided to build the first all-Mexican fast-food restaurant in San Bernardino.

Bell opened the first Taco Tia in 1954 at the corner of Base Line and Acacia in San Bernardino. Bell became quite a showman when it came to grand openings, and he promoted the occasion with a colorful fiesta, complete with mariachis, dancers and free sombreros.

Busy with his San Bernardino operations, Bell hired Ed Hackbarth, a young part-time employee of Neal Baker to manage his restaurant in Barstow. Bell struck a deal to sell Hackbarth half interest in the restaurant if he'd stick it out in Barstow, and the stage was set for the birth of yet another fast-food pioneer.

In the early years, Bell's restaurants evolved through several partnerships and name permutations, including El Taco. The first Taco Bell was opened in Downey in 1962.

Armed with a healthy dose of business savvy and the experience he'd gained from his mentor, Glen Bell, Hackbarth opened the first Del Taco restaurant in Barstow in 1964. Hackbarth quickly expanded his operations, and Del Taco went on to become one of the most successful Mexican fast-food chains in the industry.

Another pioneer in San Bernardino's fast-food connection was 23-year-old John Galardi, a manager at Glen Bell's El Taco commissary. Glen and his wife Marty helped Galardi open a small hot dog stand on a busy corner in Wilmington.

It was Marty Bell who came up with the name Der Wienerschnitzel after looking through some of her cookbooks. Galardi built the company into Wienerschnitzel, the hot dog giant of the fast food industry.

Like most great entrepreneurs, the fast-food pioneers found their most fulfilling challenges in building their business from the ground up. The McDonald brothers, Glen Bell and Ed Hackbarth, sold the interest in their companies when the pinnacle of success seemed at hand.

At 82, Neal Baker continues to run the family-owned Baker's Drive Thru restaurants.

`'We worked seven days a week when we first started out," said Baker. "It was hard work, but that's what it took to get things going."

So what was the recipe that made San Bernardino such a fertile breeding ground for fast-food pioneers? History combined a balmy climate, a high traffic flow, an increasingly mobile population and a handful of ingenious entrepreneurs into a potent formula that made San Bernardino "The birthplace of fast food."

Mark Landis is a freelance writer for The Sun.


Blogger Jim Cook said...

Was the Baker's Tacos in Azusa, CA on Route 66 one of Baker's restaurants?

12:27:00 AM  

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