Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell

I was in a little bit of a funk last week. Nothing major. No discernible reason why. Just generally felt slightly annoyed and unsympathetic toward the rest of the world. Leslie brought me home a cupcake, which made me feel a little better. And then I listened to a song I had read about in Rolling Stone – “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” by Das Racist – and I was cured. Check it out:


The first time I played it, I laughed a little. Then I listened to it three more times. And I don’t know what it was, but my state of mind turned on a dime. My bad mood melted away and I just felt better. Strange but true. Strange because, in a way, this song is among the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. The lyrics are pretty much “I’m at the Pizza Hut. I’m at the Taco Bell. I’m at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” There are a few different slightly-altered riffs, but that’s about it. It’s catchy, so I ended up singing it to myself all day. The more I sang it, the less stupid it seemed. And after a few takes, it became downright hilarious.

Maybe it’s because combination Pizza Huts and Taco Bells – those nasty, filthy not-even-real-fast-food-restaurant counters you sometimes see at rest stops and third-rate food courts – are themselves so profoundly stupid. Yum! Brands, Inc. (yes, the exclamation point is part of its actual corporate name), the international conglomerate that has grown Pizza Hut and Taco Bell (and KFC and A&W and, in China, the strangely-named Little Sheep) into their glorious current incarnations, doesn’t think they’re stupid. The holding company doesn’t discuss combination Pizza Huts and Taco Bells in its SEC filings per se, but rather refers to “multibrand units, where two or more of our Concepts are operated in a single unit.” It further notes that “each Concept has proprietary menu items and emphasizes the preparation of food with high quality ingredients, as well as unique recipes and special seasonings to provide appealing, tasty and attractive food at competitive prices.”

Seen through the lens of earnings per location, co-branding and product delivery, with synergies and distribution efficiencies to be found everywhere, a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell doesn’t seem stupid at all. But when you visit one, and look just a little bit closer at what the “concept” really is, it all starts to get a little dicey. Microwaved Chalupas glued together with sauces that come out of a caulk gun designed to be operated by barely-conscious human beings (at least for the time being, until machines can take over the very few remaining “food” delivery tasks that require some kind of human functionalities) served side-by-side with factory-made pizzas that just have to be fed through a conveyor belt oven and plopped into a cardboard box before being unveiled for an eagerly awaiting gourmand. A little shared freezer space and the same idiot-proof cash register / inventory management software, and there you have it – a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing at all against Pizza Hut or Taco Bell. I actually love their food. It’s quite delicious, albeit in a sort of awful, disgusting, self-loathing kind of way. As any college student can tell you, if you’re shitfaced, hungry and only have $2.36 in your pocket, there is no oasis in the world you’d rather stumble upon than a Taco Bell. The crack team of Yum! Brands executives assigned to the Pizza Hut and Taco Bell concepts are probably quite proud of the attractive value proposition they offer to consumers desiring an easily accessible dining product at a moderate price point. And they could probably make some quasi-legitimate claims about cost per calorie and even take some righteous position about preventing poor Americans from starving. But when you live your whole life subject to their ads and marketing campaigns, product placements and celebrity endorsements, and see their well-lit spaces and funny talking dogs and good-time-having people in their commercials, it’s impossible for some part of you not to believe, even just a tiny little bit, that Pizza Hut and Taco Bell have so much more – fun! happiness! excitement! – to offer. And if each one alone is so great, it’s almost incomprehensible how monumentally wonderful a combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell must be.

But it’s not. It’s just a shitty little kiosk at the rest stop. When you sing a song about something, you put it in the spotlight. And when you shine a light on something that was never meant to be considered for more than those few seconds in-between pumping gas and taking a leak, trying to get back on the highway as fast as possible, what you see might be disturbing, provocative or just plain hilarious. Das Racist is onto something with their sort of idiotic tune. Maybe they didn’t mean for it to have any deeper meaning. Maybe it was just a joke. But something about it – the contrast between the promise and the reality? the focus on something so utterly mundane and stupid? – made me laugh like hell. The Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell song really turned my week around. I’m in a much better mood now. Maybe I’ll head out and celebrate with a Gordita and a P’Zone.

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