We Could Have Had Doritos Locos Tacos in the '90s

Everyone's favorite food mashup could have happened 20 years ago, a former executive reveals
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An artist's rendering of what 1990s-era Doritos Locos Tacos might have looked like (flickr/mankatt/Alexis Madrigal/The Atlantic)

I have some mind-blowing new information about Doritos Locos Tacos. But first, for the uninitiated, let's review why this food product is worthy of investigation. 

Doritos Locos Tacos are like normal tacos, but the shells are made of Doritos.

And while that may seem silly—yes, it is silly—the Doritos Loco Taco is  the most successful product launch in Taco Bell history, with more than 100 million units of taco sold in the first 10 weeks, a billion in the first year

But my fascination comes not just from the fact this food has successfully united the two dominant faux-Mexican brands of my childhood—Doritos and Taco Bell. No, it's that Taco Bell has presented the Locos tacos as an innovation. Here is a partial list of things that Taco Bell people said about making a taco shell out of Doritos and filling it with taco stuff. 

  • "I said, '[let's] reinvent the crunchy taco."
  • "The crunchy taco: It was yellow and made of corn. We sold a couple billion of them, but there had been no innovation."
  • "It was just mind-blowing at the idea stage."
  • "We knew this was a breakthrough idea, so we put on our relentless hats and were determined to not let [this thing] beat us."
  • "It's really one of those breathtakingly simple but huge ideas."
  • "It's not just a product; it's now a platform--Nacho Cheese, Cool Ranch, Flamas. We're going to blow everyone away in the next few years in terms of how big this idea and platform will become."

Reinvent, innovation, mind-blowing, breakthrough, platform! It's like a game of business school bingo. It is breathtaking that people can talk about a taco with a Dorito shell like this. 

Taco Bell would like you to believe that Tacos Locos are the iPhone of Mexican fast food. Locos Tacos are meant to be a case study in technology, in innovation, in strategy. 

I take that seriously, at the very least as a societal bellwether. So I follow Taco Bell closely, posting about Taco Bell's "resident disruptor" last week. 

And this morning I received an email that shakes the very foundations of the Doritos Locos innovation story.

Recall that part of the narrative of the taco is that no one had ever thought of it before. That's what made it so exciting. It was a breakthrough! A startlingly original idea! Mind-blowing!  

But what if Taco Bell people had thought of Dorito taco shells before? What if they, like almost anyone who has ever had a bag of Doritos or a crunchy taco, had considered the possibility of uniting these two faux-Mexican treats? 

That is exactly what happened, says David Peterman, who was the vice president of new concept operations at Taco Bell in the early 1990s, during the days of the Taco Bell chihuahua.

"You should know that in approximately 1992, the idea of taco, tostada and taco salad shells coated with a variety of Dorito's flavorings from our sister company, Frito Lay was evaluated and pursued," Peterman wrote to me. "At that time, Frito Lay had recently completed a factory in Mexico that was capable of manufacturing the shells. However, Frito Lay management had no interest in producing the product and the then V.P. of Marketing at Taco Bell chose not to pursue the idea further."

What! Slow down just a minute, Mr. Peterman. You're not saying that Doritos Locos Tacos were possible in the 1990s, when the Charlotte Hornets were a popular basketball team, are you? 

Yes, that is exactly what he is saying. "There is truly nothing new under the sun," he continued. "But for timing and Pepsico inter company exigencies these Taco Bell products would have existed decades ago."

I hope you were sitting down when began reading this story. Because you should be floored now. In the food product world, that's like saying that someone thought of the iPhone before the iPhone!

But actually, that is how innovation tends to work. There's a guy named Bill Buxton at Microsoft, an old-timer who worked at Xerox PARC, who maintains a collection of gadgets and gizmos. There are 25 touchscreen gadgets alone that precede the iPhone in his collection. There are smartwatches, too. And e-readers

This mobile revolution that we're living through was invented decades ago, not just with words, but with actual products. 

None of this is to take anything away from the Doritos Locos team or the iPod or iPhone teams, for that matter.

It's just that we give way too much credit to the Big Ideas(TM), and not nearly enough to timing, execution, corporate politics, and luck. 

As Peterman put it: "I give much credit to the talented folks at Taco Bell who were able to bring these excellent products to market and in particular admire their ability to successfully navigate the seas of corporate politics."

But The Doritos Locos Taco: A Triumph of Corporate Politicking just doesn't have that same ring, you know?

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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