Thursday, December 5, 2013

To Taco Bell and Yum! Brands: Do right by Todd Mills

TODD MILLS died on Thanksgiving Day after a bout with cancer. The veteran of the United States Air Force was 41, and left behind his wife and two daughters. They held his funeral on Monday, in his hometown of Harrisburg, Ark.

That much information probably won’t make a big impression in and of itself. But if you’ve eaten at a Taco Bell restaurant any time since last year, you may well have enjoyed one of his culinary creations, a product of the hard work and passion and persistence of an ordinary man.

And now that he’s gone, you might wonder what’s next for his family three weeks before Christmas ... and every Thanksgiving and Christmas after that. I was thinking about that. I wonder if the folks at Taco Bell were thinking about that.

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See, Todd Mills came up with the novel idea of making shells for tacos with the stuff of Doritos chips. Jolie Lee of USA Today reported that Ginger Mills, Todd’s wife,

said her husband often made taco salads using Doritos and frequently said someone should make taco shells out of the cheesy snack.

In 2009, Mills wrote a letter to Frito-Lay pitching the idea. Their response was, “Thanks, but no thanks,” Ginger Mills said.

After receiving the rejection letter, he vowed to pursue the idea “from the grass-roots level,” said longtime friend Jimmy Looney, who served in the Air Force with Mills.

Mills started the Facebook page “Taco Shells from Doritos Movement” in 2009, encouraging followers to “tell Frito-Lay that we demand nacho cheesy taco shells! ...

In 2012, Todd Mills received a phone call from Taco Bell. The company was developing the prized creation — calling it the Doritos Locos Tacos — and wanted to fly Todd out to its test kitchen in California. He was among the first people to try the new product.

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THIS PAST summer, Mills was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain and lung cancer. He underwent brain surgery on Aug. 14. After his diagnosis, Taco Bell e-mailed a statement of support. “We are honored to have had his support through the Doritos for Taco Shells Movement on Facebook, and we admire his strength and optimism during his recent battle. Our thoughts and sympathies are with Todd's family during this time,” the statement said, as quoted by USA Today.

A fundraising website, Team Todd, ultimately raised $14,761 to help defray his medical expenses. Taco Bell donated $1,000 to the effort, and only did that after being approached by Looney. There’s no other record of either Taco Bell or Yum! Brands offering any further financial assistance to the family of the man who put $1 billion in Taco Bell’s coffers.

For those of you keeping score at home, $1,000 is .0001 percent of $1 billion. That’s pronounced “one thousandth of 1 percent.”

Looney told USA Today that Mills never really wanted any money for what he did. “Todd being Todd, he never asked for anything,” Looney said. “He said, ‘I just want my tacos.’ ”

Maybe we just don’t care. Maybe people just don’t give a good goddamn. Or maybe — given everything else that has a demand on our attention span — people just don’t know about it. If that’s the case, this is one way to turn that around.

Todd Mills was too much of a gentleman to raise hell or make a fuss about this, while he was alive.

I, most assuredly, am not.

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The Taco Bell Twitter page is regularly crowded with thank-yous from the company’s loyal customers, and insipid one-liners written by Taco Bell to itself. As of this morning there was nothing, not a word, about the passing of the creator of one of the company’s biggest-selling products. Not even a mention from the company on Thanksgiving Day.

Taco Bell is owned by Yum! Brands, a Louisville, Ky.-based Fortune 500 corporation, directed by David C. Novak, the CEO of the company that is, with more than 39,000 restaurants in more than 120 countries, the largest fast-food company on the planet (by number of outlets). In 2012, the company’s global revenue exceeded $13.6 billion. Operating profit grew 13 percent last year, and same-store sales at Taco Bell restaurants increased 8 percent, according to the Yum! Annual Report.

All of which is to say that, by any reasonable measure of contribution, the Doritos Locos Tacos pie should be big enough for a meaningful slice to go to the family of a husband, a father, a military veteran and a creative spirit who burnished the bottom line of two major American companies, big time.

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A CAVEAT: I’m willing to admit that Yum! and/or Taco Bell may be way ahead of me on this. It’s possible that, unbeknownst to anyone, one company or the other has already reached out to the Mills family and arranged for a proper share of the profits from the biggest-selling item on Taco Bell’s menu. They may have already done the right thing.

If that’s true ... my bad. They should have said something. Their PR people should have had the marketing savvy to realize that by owning up to Todd Mills’ role in one of their highest-flying menu items, they’d likely endear themselves to the public as a company willing to be responsive to its customers and humane toward one of its unexpected benefactors.

All the better to head off angry, passionate blogposts from loudmouth troublemakers like me.

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But I’d bet they haven’t done the right thing; frankly, multinational corporations rarely do the right thing these days without being embarrassed into it. I’m happy to be wrong and I hope I am. But in case I’m not, I’m launching a Twitter hashtag, (#dorightbytoddmills) you can use for tweets to Taco Bell and the folks at Yum! Brands. It’s a bit long but it gets the point across. If you’ve read this and you’re so moved, feel free to drop Taco Bell and Yum! Brands a tweet with the hashtag above.

It’s a long shot, but this is what social media was invented for. To say nothing of photography: If you can look at the picture of Todd Mills, and the face of 6-year-old Lainey Mills, and not feel something stirring inside your heart ... you may be the walking dead for real.

What one corporate behemoth and its parent corporate behemoth are doing and apparently not doing may be perfectly legal, it may be defensible from a corporate perspective, but by God, it’s not right. Let’s do what we can to make it so.

Image credits: Todd and Lainey Mills: From Team Todd web site. Yum! Brands logo: © 2013 Yum! Brands Inc. Doritos Locos Tacos image: © 2013 Taco Bell. 

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