Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Florida tomato boycott targets Taco Bell. But what about Del Taco?

Photo by David BaconDel Taco is famous for its commercials portraying the company's main competitor, Taco Bell, as a corporate monolith that doesn't serve real food. Have you seen those cute ads with Del Taco's soft-spoken mascot, Dan the Product Guy? In one commercial, Dan is haranguing a rival restaurant's hostess about whether they have 49-cent tacos. In another, Dan is shouting slogans and waving a protest sign in front of a glass skyscraper that, not coincidentally, is Taco Bell's corporate headquarters in Irvine.

Two Mondays ago, life began to imitate art when more than 1,000 protesters converged on Taco Bell's HQ for the climax of their nationwide Taco Bell Truth Tour. Organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, their mission was to highlight the terrible working conditions faced by Florida tomato pickers who are paid just $2.50 per 20-pound crate of tomatoes. At that rate, the tomato pickers—most of them recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America—can expect to earn an annual pre-tax salary of about $8,000.

Taco Bell doesn't actually employ the people who pick the tomatoes, of course; it buys the tomatoes from a Florida-based distributor. Del Taco, whose corporate headquarters are just down the 405 from Taco Bell in Laguna Hills, won't say where they get their tomatoes. However, most tomatoes used in U.S. restaurant chains spend their youths in the Sunshine State.

So how has Del Taco managed to avoid the same boycott that has deep-fried Taco Bell? Perhaps because Taco Bell, with outlets in nearly every state, is a much larger target than Del Taco, which does business only in the western U.S.

Either way, Del Taco doesn't have much to say about the protests. That didn't stop us from asking. Hoping to learn where Del Taco gets its tomatoes, we called Del Taco spokeswoman Barbara Caruso no less than six times on the day of the Taco Bell Truth Tour protest. She returned our calls the next day. Although every message had relayed our interest in finding out where the company gets its tomatoes, Caruso claimed she still wasn't sure why we were calling.

"To find out where Del Taco gets its tomatoes," we repeated.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I assume Del Taco doesn't grow its own tomatoes. . . ."

"We get them from a distributor," Caruso said abruptly.

She promised to call us back with the name and location of the distributor, but by press time—a week later—she still hadn't.

Meanwhile, the only documented link between Del Taco, Taco Bell and the tomato boycott appears to be apocryphal. On www.sfindymedia.com, a person who claimed to be present for a Jan. 15 demonstration in Irvine wrote, "Del Taco cups were spotted around the premises, and rumor has it that [the] Del Taco Guy on the commercials was spotted amongst the crowd."

"Dan the Product Guy" is the creation of G&M Plumbing, Del Taco's El Segundo-based advertising company. Our attempts to verify the claim that Dan was among the Taco Bell Truth Tour demonstrators and to learn whether G&M will leverage the boycott into a new wave of anti-Taco Bell commercials went nowhere. We called throughout the week but got a busy signal each time. It's possible the company was on deadline putting together a new ad campaign using footage of the Taco Bell Truth Tour. Or maybe, just as in the commercial, "Dan the Product Guy" wasn't answering the phones, instead practicing his moves in the kitchen, "doin' the robot and stirrin' the beans."

 
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