Inside Taco Bell’s test kitchen

Irvine headquarters is home to 800 employees.

I’m about to walk into the test kitchen that brought you such classics as the Quesalupa, the Crunchwrap and the Doritos Locos Tacos.

In case you haven’t heard, Taco Bell’s global headquarters has called Irvine home for the past 40 years.

“As a brand with Southern California in our DNA, we’re excited to be in Irvine and continue to grow where we have deep roots,” says Frank Tucker, Taco Bell’s chief people officer.

The headquarters stands in the Irvine Spectrum District, not far from another popular restaurant headquarters, In-N-Out.

If you’re a Taco Bell fan, then 1 Glen Bell Way is hallowed ground, filled with nostalgia — including the very first Taco Bell.

Glen Bell opened the original Taco Bell (affectionately referred to as Numero Uno) in 1962 in Downey. In 2015, Downey was about to tear down the 400-square-foot taco stand, so the company trucked it over to its Irvine headquarters to save it.

The company plans to set it up in the lobby (the lobby is huge) so fans can visit it, says Matt Prince, senior manager of brand experience. One month it might be a Taco Bell museum, the next a store for merchandise, possibly even an Airbnb.

Nancy Kanis, Taco Bell’s associate manager of product development, shows off the company’s latest innovation, the new churro doughnut.

Where the magic happens

Occasionally Taco Bell fans are invited to visit the test kitchen on the fifth floor. Recently, Taco Bell hosted an “elevated” dinner there, offering reservations for 34 on Open Table. It was booked in 17 seconds.

Celebs like Ryan Seacrest, Chrissy Teigen and Wiz Khalifa also have been known to drop in. I recently scored an invite to the test kitchen.

“This is where the magic happens,” Prince says as the elevator doors open on the fifth floor. “Everything you see on the menu today originated in these rooms.”

It’s where the company’s Food and Innovation Team (roughly 60 people) dreams up menu items like the Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco.

It can take anywhere from one to seven years (the Quesalupa) to go from idea to menu, Prince says.

Part of Taco Bell’s test kitchen, where the company’s Food and Innovation Team dreams up menu items like the Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco.

The ‘Taco Whisperer’

After tasting a new churro doughnut that is currently being tested at Taco Bells in Kansas City, Missouri, I ran into Rene Pisciotti, inventor of the Nacho Fries, one of the hottest sellers in the company’s history.

“They call him the Taco Whisperer,” Prince tells me.

I asked Pisciotti if he got a bonus for his contribution — like maybe Nacho Fries for life?

“It’s all part of the gig,” he says. “You get bragging rights.”

Asked what inspired his creation, Pisciotti gets all rock ’n’ roll: “Let’s take over fries and disrupt the category.”

Testing food isn’t all they do at the headquarters. Eight hundred employees work there, including the creatives – men and women who brainstorm ad campaigns and branding.

The space is bright and open, with a gym/barre studio, laundry service, day care, pinball machine, flat-screen TVs (soccer was on), and a commissary (with a Taco Bell lunch counter, of course).

“The energy in this building is really fun,” Prince says. “It’s palpable, vibrant. It’s a live-work-play atmosphere.”