“Death to Chain Restaurants,” or how one evening at Taco Bell (circa 2005) radicalized me


I’ve meant to tell this story many times over the years. Earlier this week the topic arose at Facebook in the form of a comment, and it strikes me as the perfect opportunity to elaborate here at my web site.

Today’s time travel takes us to around 2005, although it might have been 2004. I’m sure it was some point just after we moved into our current home, which was late 2003.

Our work schedules were a great deal more hectic and less predictable then, and while I haven’t patronized fast food eateries to any great degree since the 1980s, Taco Bell was an occasional option for us under the banner of “fast and cheap.”

That’s the only real reason to periodically suspend one’s animus toward chain (as opposed to genuinely indie) businesses, right? 

After work one night my wife Diana stopped at the Taco Bell on Charlestown Road in New Albany, the one near Twin Oaks Drive. She went through the drive-thru, was waved to the side to park and wait for the order to be completed, then sat for almost a half-hour for food that obviously had been lost or forgotten.

She is not a shrinking violet, and went inside to remonstrate, only to be “greeted” by a 20-something manager who, in essence, had no shits left to give. There’d be no comps or apologies; it was a busy night, and she could order again if she wished.

She returned home angry, without sustenance. I said fine, let’s drive back over there, because I had my own remonstrating to do.

The passage of time has not muted my amazement at what happened next.

The manager in question (“ah, this must be the husband”) lectured me, explaining in great detail that he was responsible for so much profit, and adept at handling his crack team of teenaged employees so very efficiently, that his workplace brilliance rendered him absolutely termination-proof.

Besides, a certain level of customer dissatisfaction was built into the business model; Diana’s horrific experience was a mere statistical blip, and not even altogether unfortunate. It was just an occurrence, which wouldn’t matter a jot overall, and would be meaningless irrespective of how high in the corporate hierarchy I might decide to complain. Furthermore, it was utterly insignificant whether we ever patronized Taco Bell ever again.

He also remarked somewhat dismissively on the tendency of the older generation (me) to be quaintly chivalrous about their mates (Diana, who of course suffered the brunt of the rudeness).

He merely shrugged. It’s understandable and all that I’d come into his shop seeking vengeance for a misdeed, but the fact that the misdeed was entirely irrelevant to him, his team and the edifice of Taco Bell rendered my attitude laughable. The manager proposed to call the police if I didn’t leave his inner sanctum. At this point, I must confess to being happy to oblige.

Two things occurred to me as the manager spoke.

First, it reminded me of the scene in the movie JFK when Donald Sutherland meets Kevin Costner on the park bench by the Washington Monument and explains the whole of the assassination conspiracy to him from top to bottom.

I was Costner at Taco Bell that evening, and now understood the business plan of corporate chain fast food joints everywhere. Verily, my eyes were opened; they succeeded precisely because the customer didn’t matter.

Second, I decided we’d return home and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I’d take the manager at his word and never eat at a Taco Bell anywhere, ever again.

It’s a promise I’ve kept for 17 or more years, and will continue to observe.

In retrospect, I’m grateful for the experience, and I often wonder whether the manager is in the Taco Bell corporate suite by now, or perhaps working as a leading GOP strategist. He reinforced my commitment to indie ideals, and in fact, I count these few minutes with this otherwise nameless individual as among the pivotal formative influences of the past two decades of my life.

And I sincerely hope that at some point, he choked on it.

At least I was able to remove “choking down” Taco Bell, and all the rest of the fast food fare like it, from my list of wallet-supported activities. Here’s a chart of my own.