The Secrets of Taco Bell, Revealed by a Manager

Taco Bell manager
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Do the people at Taco Bell ever get sick of Taco Bell? Are there any secret menu items lurking in that shiny drive-thru display? What is actually up with that weird-ass chicken taco thing… how do they make it!?

Normally, you'd have to get an actual job at Taco Bell to quench your thirst for these Live Mas questions, which would involve changing careers, filling out an application, learning to make tacos, etc. This is no longer the case. We granted a 22-year-old Taco Bell manager with three years behind the counter complete anonymity to spill the refried beans on everything TB's nation of loyal customers want to know about the inner workings of this much-beloved chain.

And unlike Taco Bell, this dude from the Midwest really delivers. Damn, we forgot to ask him why Taco Bell doesn't deliver...

Taco Bell food
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Employees never eat items off the regular menu

One of the reasons employees never get sick of the food is that they never really eat the same thing twice. They have Taco Bell's entire idiosyncratic roster of ingredients at their disposal. And they get creative! It's like craft time, but with queso.

"We're all about creating weird stuff back in the kitchen, and we come up with some cool stuff," our man said. "Some people will just like, crush up a lot of the Doritos Locos shells (both kinds) and make big taco bowls with a bunch of ingredients. Or we'll just keep layering shells, kind of like that old SNL skit."

And sometimes, the employees invent items that sound like they could become bestsellers.

"I think the coolest thing was a riff on the Mexican pizza, but with thicker, softer crust, to make it seem more like an actual pizza," he said. "One of my co-workers got the flatbread and loaded it up with pico, steak, diced tomatoes, lettuce, and some crushed-up Doritos Locos shells. It was awesome. They should make that, for real!"

You can pretty much customize any food at Taco Bell

It's not just the employees who can remix Taco Bell orders. Their POS system gives customers the ability to customize every order with a nearly incalculable number of variations. It's like infinity, with Doritos Locos shells instead of integers.

"Really, our system lets you modify any order, to any degree. If you add a bunch of stuff, we are going to upcharge you, of course, but it's definitely doable," he said.

There are some concrete examples you can use in your own future orders:
"Anything that involves a hard-shell taco, you can replace with a Doritos Locos shell. If you want to upgrade your basic soft-taco shell to the 10in we use on other items, you can do it. If you want anything we sell added to your dish, we can do it. You can literally play around and create anything you want with the ingredients we have. It's a little annoying for us to do, but it's totally possible and I feel like not a lot of people know that. You just have to know that you are allowed to ask."

Some improvised items are downright weird

With great power comes great responsibility. Naturally, some people manipulate this endless customization system to facilitate their own freaky desires. For instance, making salad in their mouth.

"One time, someone ordered a Fiesta Taco Salad, which comes in a taco-shell bowl, but they requested each individual item in the salad be served separately (meaning a pile of lettuce, a pile of tomatoes, sauce on the side, etc.). Then, instead of the bowl, they wanted a side of tortilla chips. We watched them eat it, and they used the tortilla chips to individually scoop up each part of the salad, to make like, a mini-taco salad on each chip. It was weird."

Doritos Locos tacos
Lee Breslouer/Thrillist

It's not easy working at Taco Bell…

Despite popular belief, fast-food work is no easy gig. And Taco Bell may be the hardest job in the entire industry -- especially working the line.

"They say Taco Bell is the hardest fast-food restaurant to work at, and I believe that. Not only is the menu always changing, but we are extremely precise with how we make our food. For someone to be able to work the line competently, it takes at least two months, sometimes longer, to memorize the entire menu. Our method of preparation is completely unlike any other fast-food restaurant."

There's a reason why Taco Bell's food looks consistently the same

Have you ever noticed that out of all fast-food chains Taco Bell's products look and taste amazingly consistent? There's a reason for that. A stressful, tedious reason.

"Everything that comes out of our kitchen is weighed on a digital scale. If the weight is .3oz off what it's supposed to be, we have to throw that item away. So, when a soft taco goes on the scale, it needs to be 1.6oz. If it varies .3oz either way, we have to toss it. We all train with a scale, and we have to get used to doling out the ingredients precisely, in order to make everything the correct weight in the end. It's very hard to get that right."

Everything is made "by hand"

While everything at Taco Bell is clearly not made from scratch, every single item is put together ingredient-by-ingredient by the hands of the line workers. (Don't worry, they wear gloves.)

"Think about making something at McDonald's. You have the patty, the bun, the cheese, maybe a couple pickles, and a squirt of ketchup. It's not super-uniform. But at Taco Bell -- with the weighing at the end, we need to be totally precise with everything we put inside our food. And we use our fingers to do that, after training with a digital scale, of course."

Each item has a strict formula that line workers need to follow.

"For example, a crunchy taco is one scoop beef, one finger pinch of cheese, and two finger pinches of lettuce. If we want to make it supreme, we step it up to two finger pinches of cheese and three of lettuce. Really, we are just adding more fingers, but once you're trained in that method, it becomes second nature. This type of exactness makes sure almost all of our stuff comes out looking the same, no matter where you are or who is making it. And everything we make is just like that, measured by hand, put together by hand, and weighed before it reaches a customer."

Taco Bell Mexican Pizza
Laura Murray/Thrillist

The most annoying thing to make?

So, it seems everything is kind of hard to make here. But obviously some of it rises to the top of "crap they don't like to make." (**cough** quesadilla **end cough**)

"Everything takes a lot of work, but I would say things like the Mexican pizza or the quesadillas are probably the most work-intensive. For those, there's just more steps to the process. Take the quesadilla. Not only do you have to make the thing, but you also have to go through the extra steps of putting it through a steamer, then through a grill, then you have to slice it and package it. It just takes longer, so it's more annoying."

Patience is a virtue not all customers share

Due in large part to their rigorous prepping system, this fast food sometimes comes out… slowly. Much to (at least one) customer's chagrin.  

"The only time I've really seen a customer totally freak out was when this one guy had to wait a little bit longer for his food. He had a big order, like a dozen or so things, and we had to remake a couple things because of the weight issue."

The customer in question did not understand the wait for the weight.

"We just messed up on a few items. He was just being extremely rude the entire time. Then when he actually got his food after about 10 minutes of waiting, he took the entire bag, dumped it all over the counter, and just stormed off. I have no idea what that guy was thinking."

There's an off-menu fan favorite you can still order

Aside from the limitless customization, there is an actual menu item you can order… that for some reason isn't on the actual menu. And it's a fan favorite.

"This is something pretty weird I've noticed, but no Taco Bells have enchiritos (an enchilada-burrito mash-up) on their menus anymore. People love them, but they took them off our menus," he said. "They're still in our POS, and we can definitely still make them. If you order one, we have the option to make it. Not sure why it's not on the actual menu anymore, but I looked 1,000 times and it's just not there. So go into your local Taco Bell and order one. Chances are they'll make it without saying another word."

Taco Bell food
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Taco Bell definitely caters to the millennial crowd

You'll often see combination Taco Bell/KFC restaurants (along with the occasional Pizza Hut or A&W). There's a reason for that. The chains were both formally owned by PepsiCo and are now owned by Yum! (its exclamation point, not ours). But, according to someone who's seen inside the walls of both chains, there's one big difference.

"Taco Bell's tagline is 'Live Mas,’ which means 'live more,' but it's really saying 'Live Life to the Fullest.' Taco Bell is a brand that is very much aimed at getting young people's money," our manager said. "Think about it. The menu is constantly changing, with new and exciting and sometimes crazy dishes that come and go in a matter of months. Perfect for the social media-obsessed ADD generation. All their marketing is about late-night eating and being out and social with friends."

And KFC…

Kentucky Fried Chicken, on the other wing (hehe), is aimed at a slightly older demographic.

"Have you ever noticed KFC offers a ton of coupons, but Taco Bell hardly offers any? Older people are much more likely to use coupons and would prefer the (mostly) unchanging menu that KFC has," the manager said, likely to the chagrin of the rotating roster of Colonels. "Behind the scenes, it's clear that Taco Bell is their 'young people brand' and KFC is 'their old people brand.'"

Naked Chicken Chalupa
Courtesy of Taco Bell

The Naked Chicken Chalupa is probably not as crazy as you think it is

Taco Bell's newest fast-food innovation/monstrosity, the Naked Chicken Chalupa, is making waves for appearing unseemly yet delicious. Our manager assures us it's actually pretty basic.

"Yeah, it's not that big of a deal. In fact, it's kind of a rip-off. You are really just getting a chicken sandwich without a shell, and it's more expensive."

And it's pretty easy to make:

"We get the chicken patties, and we have a frying utensil shaped like a taco shell. We just dip it in the fryer inside that tool, and then toss in our lettuce, tomatoes, and all that. It's kind of a rip-off, really. You are getting less, for more."

The quality is actually way better than you think

Fast food is fast food. You know what you are getting into. But Taco Bell seems to rise above the rest, at least in this manager's opinion. But you probably already knew that.

"You know, there's not really anything I would say you 'shouldn't order.' Look, no one is thinking Taco Bell is using like, fresh, farm-to-table ingredients. It's fast food. It's not like a four-star restaurant," he said. "But we have pretty strict rules about how we make our food, how it's stored, and we have pretty high standards with our employees. I've worked in other fast-food places, and Taco Bell is definitely the best in terms of quality. If you go to Taco Bell, you should be expecting to eat fast food. And as long as you have that in mind, you won't be surprised by anything. We really do make everything by hand, and put a lot of care into everything we make."

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He is not management material. Follow him @wilfulton.