The Southwestern Alaska town of Bethel got its fill of tacos on Sunday, and then some. Taco Bell served-up about 6,000 tacos and sent several video production crews to document the event.
Bethel, a town of about 6,000, has no roads in, no roads out and no Taco Bell restaurant -- so the fast food franchise had to fly in all the ingredients, as well as a crew from its franchises in Southcentral Alaska to make the tacos.
Bethel does have a Subway store, but other than that, there’s not much in the way of fast food. And the only way to get it is to fly 500 miles east to Anchorage.
You can imagine the buzz when signs recently went up around town, saying Taco Bell would soon open a restaurant.
“Everybody was looking forward to Taco Bell,” said Bethel Mayor Joe Klekja. “Then the news broke that was a hoax, that they weren’t really coming. Then it hit national news.”
And at that point, Taco Bell decided to capitalize on the publicity – and told the town that, while it wouldn’t open a franchise in Bethel, it would ship the ingredients for 10,000 tacos and prepare a feast for the whole community, starting at noon at the town’s cultural center.
After two hours of waiting at the appointed place, there was a huge crowd, but no tacos.
A group of men dressed in black milled around, communicating back and forth on Walkie Talkies.
A man with a bullhorn urged people to empty the parking lot and move across the street for a surprise. Finally a helicopter thundered across the sky, carrying a large brown Taco Bell van that dangled from a cable.
The crowd cheered after the taco truck was set down in the parking lot.
“When the van was being dropped down, the helicopter was kind of swaying,” said Jennifer Nelson who watched from across the street. “It kind of scared us. I’m glad they made it safely.”
Once the van was loaded up with tacos, which had been prepared inside the cultural center, people were encouraged to chant, “Taco Bell. Taco Bell,” and then turned loose to race across the street.
Video crews recorded the spectacle from several angles, all part of a commercial Taco Bell is producing.
The company says to watch its FaceBook and Twitter sites for news about when the ad will hit the national airwaves.
Bethelites seemed to enjoy playing along. Myron Angstman, a local lawyer and dog musher, came dressed for the occasion.
“You can’t go to a taco party without a sombrero, can you?” said Angstman, who also brought a sled dog wearing a sombrero.
Peter Atchak, who had never tasted a taco before, did have one suggestion for Taco Bell,
“Try a moose taco or a caribou taco.”
So how much did Taco Bell spend to put on this fiesta? The company would only say its taco party cost several hundred thousand dollars.
But the bigger question is why it chose a remote Alaskan community like Bethel to launch a media campaign.
“Nobody has ever done this before,” said Brian Niccol, who is the marketing chief for Taco Bell. “We’re in the business of doing things nobody’s ever done before.”
Some in Bethel question the expense and wonder if the money wouldn’t have been better spent to address some of the region’s social problems, like its high rates of alcohol abuse and suicide. A woman from a local health agency asked Taco Bell executives if the van could be left behind to be used by a non-profit, but was told the company plans to fly it back to California.
Taco Bell’s public relations specialist, Rob Poetsch, said in an email that Taco Bell plans on doing more for Bethel later.
“Taco Bell has long supported the community in which it serves by getting involved in charitable programs that help kids graduate from high school. So we’re having discussions with the mayor on ways we can further support education in Bethel.”
Many did find the location of the taco fest a paradox. The cultural center celebrates the Yup’ik Eskimo tradition of hunting and gathering wild foods like moose and salmon, which is definitely not fast food, but instead, a lengthy and physically challenging pursuit.
But sharing food is also an important part of the Yup’ik culture, so Taco Bell’s extravagant gesture of giving out 10,000 free tacos left most of the community feeling happy, not just for the food, but for providing an event they’ll remember for a long time.
“I doubt it’ll ever happen again,” said Joey Glasheen, a teenager who came hungry for tacos.