Is This Heaven?
The sign that made me pull off of the highway for a closer look.
Combination fast food restaurants occupy a special place in culinary and cultural lore. Behold, these legendary lyrics from Das Racist:
I'm at the Pizza Hut (What?)
I'm at the Taco Bell (What?)
I'm at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell
Yum! Brands owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, and occasionally used to combine them all under one roof, leading at least one stunt-loving writer for Thrillist to combine several menu items into a singular, terrifying Frankenmeal. There are few KenTacoHuts left, however, and even combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bells are increasingly rare.
Even so, there are other combinations out there. Dunkin’ and Baskin Robbins have the same owners, so you’ll occasionally see them together. In 1995, Wendy’s bought the legendary Canadian coffee and donut chain Tim Horton’s and started shacking up together in the same buildings. The marriage didn’t last (Burger King’s corporate owner bought it). According to the Financial Post, there was bad blood from the beginning:
In the mid-1990s, Wendy’s acquired Tim Hortons in a US$425-million deal that co-founder Ron Joyce later called “a mistake.” The two brands continue to operate joint locations in Canada, though former Tims marketing executive Ron Buist said franchisees refused to ever let Wendy’s sell Tim Hortons coffee.
“Store owners were vehement about that: You’re not getting our coffee. And they never did,” recalled Buist, who retired in 2001.
Sorry, one more fascinating point from that article:
American breakfast customers are more interested in pop. “It is far higher than you would ever expect,” Pringle said of the number of Americans who like to wash down their bacon and eggs with carbonated sugary drinks. “In Canada, no one drinks soda for breakfast. It’s very rare.”
Hold on, gonna salute the American flag while I wash down this breakfast burrito with Mountain Dew Code Red.
I digress. Co-branded restaurants are sort of hot right now, mostly because you’re hitting two different customer bases in the same store, which causes sales to go up without having to build two separate buildings or storefronts, thus saving on real estate or rent. Plus, you don’t have to make multiple trips to satisfy the picky eaters in your car (although I have definitely appeased my two kids by caving to everyone’s demands and running through the Bojangles and Wendy’s drive-thrus). It is this corporate thinking that led Jamba Juice to shack up with Auntie Anne’s. What a world.
What I’m saying is: Combination fast food joints are not unusual. And yet this one made me pull off of the highway:
If you’re wondering what Google thinks “corndog màs” translates to, apparently it’s Welsh for “mass horndog.”
Still! A minor freakout occurred after seeing a Taco Bell and a Cook Out combined.
So, what’s really going on here?
First off, let’s give you the lay of the land. This particular sign is visible as you pass the Akron Drive exit on Highway 52 in Winston-Salem. That’s a particularly good stopping point for guilty pleasure food; Mountain Fried Chicken, which occupies a former Hardee’s, is one of Chris Paul’s favorite places. At the far end of Akron Drive, the Piedmont Aviation Snack Bar has existed in some form since 1942. The factory where Texas Pete hot sauce is made is a mile from the exit (That’s a whole ‘nother story). There’s a lot of highly processed food happening around those parts, is what I’m saying.
I’m missing the point, though. Is there a combination Cook Out/Taco Bell? Well, no. As you can see in the picture below, the Cook Out and Taco Bell are neighbors, but not roommates.
Both restaurants have been there for a very long time; Google Street View shows them both in business there back in 2007. The sign has been there for at least 15 years, but until recently, it’s only a Taco Bell sign. The new combo sign went up sometime after July.
Also, unlike other fast food brands that work together, Cook Out and Taco Bell have NOTHING TO DO WITH EACH OTHER. The only thing they share in common is a quesadilla, although I’ll leave it up to you to say which one is better. The two share a parking area, but they each own their own property; the line runs right down the middle of the lot.
So, why did this Taco Bell decide to do some advertising for a restaurant that it’s ostensibly competing with? Folks, you’d be surprised at how often people answer my stupid questions.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen this time. I contacted Cook Out’s corporate office in Thomasville and left a message for their marketing department. I’m not holding my breath for a return call, since Cook Out notoriously does not talk to the press, like, ever. So I tried another route and contacted Charter Foods, which owns this particular Taco Bell franchise (almost all Taco Bell restaurants are run by franchise owners, not the corporate parent). “That is a weird one,” the woman on the phone said in response to my admittedly weird questions about the sign. She did say that the company currently had no Taco Bell/Cook Out hybrid restaurants out there. I did leave two messages with Charter’s development guy to see if they were thinkin’ about it, but again, never heard back. I’ll leave it to Taco Bell Quarterly to get to the bottom of this.
Either way, people like this guy are gonna be mildly disappointed when they pull off the road and see Cook Out and Taco Bell sleeping in separate beds, and not the TacoCookBellOut marriage they so badly desire.
But! You can dream. You can imagine a world in which you can order a chalupa with a side of corn dog. You can close your eyes and picture the Doritos Locos milkshake. You may have been a mirage, highway sign, but thank you for unlocking a world of possibility.
Leave your dream culinary mashups in the comments. It’s the holiday season. Let’s get weird.