Friday, October 26, 2007

1992: Taco Bell tries selling tacos in Mexico
2007: Taco Bell tries again
(Won't offer corn fungus or cow eyes)

It sounds like a fast-food grudge match, or selling ice to the Eskimos: Taco Bell is taking on the homeland of its namesake by reopening in Mexico after a 15 year absence. Defenders of Mexican culture see the chain's re-entry as a crowning insult to a society already overrun by US chains - from Starbucks and Subway to KFC.

The company's advertising - "Taco Bell is something else" - is an attempt to distance itself from any comparison to Mexico's beloved taquerias, which sell traditional corn tortillas stuffed with an endless variety of fillings, from spicy beef to corn fungus and cow eyes.

Taco Bell made its name promoting its menu to Americans as something straight out of Mexico. But it's a very different dynamic south of the border. There, the company is projecting a more "American" fast-food image by adding french fries - some topped with cheese, cream, ground meat and tomatoes - to the menu at its first store, which opened in late September in the northern city of Monterrey. Other than the fries and soft-serve ice cream, the menu comes almost directly from the US menu.

Some of the names have been changed to protect the sacred: the hard-shelled items sold as "tacos" in the U.S. have been renamed "tacostadas." This made-up word is a play on "tostada," which for Mexicans is a hard, fried disk of cornmeal that is always served flat, with toppings.

But while Mexicans eagerly buy many American brands, the taco holds a place of honor in the national cuisine. Mexicans eat them everywhere, anytime of day, buying them from basket-toting street vendors in the morning or slathering them in salsa at brightly lit taquerias to wrap up a night on the town.

Taco Bell has taken pains to say that it's not trying to masquerade as a Mexican tradition. "One look alone is enough to tell that Taco Bell is not a 'taqueria,'" the company said in an ad. "It is a new fast-food alternative that does not pretend to be Mexican food."

It's still a mixed message for Mexicans, such as Marco Fragoso, a 39-year-old office worker sitting down for lunch at a traditional taqueria in Mexico City, because the US chain uses traditional Mexican names for its burritos, gorditas and chalupas. "They're not tacos," Fragoso said. "They're folded tostadas. They're very ugly."

Taco Bell failed with an earlier launch in Mexico City in 1992. Mexicans were less familiar with foreign chains back then and the economy was in trouble. The North American Free Trade Agreement had not yet been signed.

Those restaurants didn't even last two years. Since then, free trade and growing migration have made US brands ubiquitous in Mexico, influencing how people dress, talk, and eat. (info from The Associated Press)

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