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The 8 Most Ingenious Fast-Food Publicity Stunts of All Time

The 8 Most Ingenious Fast-Food Publicity Stunts of All Time

For as long as people have been running businesses, they’ve been attempting to draw attention to them. Most businesses take a rather traditional route — buying ad space in newspapers or magazines, for example, or shelling out for a TV commercial — but some take the quest for publicity a little too far.

The 8 Most Ingenious Fast-Food Publicity Stunts of All Time (Slideshow)

Fast food companies have millions of dollars at their disposal, earmarked for the express purpose of attracting some publicity to their brand. Everyone has heard of Burger King at this point, so a simple commercial explaining that Burger King is a local burger joint definitely won’t cut it. So how do you promote a brand that everybody already knows about? You think outside the box.

Creative agencies hired by these brands have a daunting task set out before them: Create a campaign that will get people talking and hopefully laughing, one that won’t offend anyone, and will eventually lead to an increase in sales. Simple advertisements are one element of what an agency may set out to do, but publicity stunts are a whole other ball game.

Whereas advertisements aren’t meant to deceive, publicity stunts attempt to get the masses talking by convincing them that something truly outrageous is happening. It’s not until awareness of the stunt hits critical mass that the organizers admit that the jig is up; more often than not, the hoax comes to a crashing halt when people start to get truly angry. For example, in 2010 a soon-to-open restaurant in Berlin attempted to drum up publicity by announcing that donors were invited to give “any part of their body” to their restaurant to be cooked. The whole thing (including the restaurant) turned out to be a hoax. On other occasions, however, a stunt will work like a dream: In 2009, the legendary Seattle fish bar Ivar’s brought two billboards to the surface of Puget Sound that had supposedly been submerged in 1954 to attract the attention of future submarine commuters. It was quickly revealed that it was all a hoax, but sales increased by more than 400 percent, most likely because the stunt was funny and completely inoffensive.

These days, fast food publicity stunts tend to be more silly than anything else, intended to show the lighter side of monolithic brands while getting people talking. For example, Jack in the Box recently unveiled the “World’s Largest Coupon” hanging off of a building in Los Angeles; if you snapped a photo of it, you could redeem it for a buy-one-get-one-free offer. Inoffensive, sure, but also completely forgettable.

Some fast food publicity stunts, however, are anything but forgettable. Read on to learn about eight of them.

Nathan’s: Hiring “Doctors” to Eat Hot Dogs

In what might be called the original fast food publicity stunt, hot dog impresario Nathan Handwerker’s attention-getting ploy also gave rise to a major chain. In 1916, Handwerker, a Polish immigrant and onetime employee of the sprawling Feltman’s Restaurant in Coney Island, decided to open his own hot dog stand just up the street from his former workplace and sell his hot dogs for half the price Feltman's charged: five cents. Because they were so inexpensive, however, potential customers questioned what was really going into them, and tended to stay away. But Nathan had an idea for a now-legendary stunt: He hired actors to stand outside his stand wearing lab coats and stethoscopes while eating the hot dogs. He later unveiled signs reading, “If doctors eat our hot dogs, you know they’re good!” It must have worked, because Nathans continues to thrive today, and you're probably saying, "Feltman who?"

KFC: Colonel Sanders Goes Rappelling

KFC wanted to prove that they were “talking lunch to new heights” in 2011, so they hired a man to dress up like Colonel Sanders and rappel down Chicago’s 40-story River Bend building. He also handed out $5 coupons to window washers.

In the winter, people are more likely to stay indoors than brave the cold, which is definitely reflected in these March 2015 food ideas. It may or may not be a case of cabin fever, but people are more creative than ever when it comes to combining different dishes. We have reached peak mash-up in the kitchen.

March 2015 food ideas indicate people are continuing to make unconventional food hybrids. This can be seen with spaghetti-topped cakes, bacon weave pasta pies, mini pizza muffins, cheesy pulled pork creations and pot pie poutines. With an emphasis on sharing, the mash-up can also be found in sweet dessert options such as pudding-covered popcorn and cookie-stuffed cupcakes.

In addition to lots of hot food items, chocolate is becoming an increasingly popular ingredient with Easter coming up soon.

KFC’s New Employee Training Game Is a Virtual Reality Nightmare

In case being a fast-food employee wasn’t hard enough, KFC is now putting its workers through a bizarre initiation rite: a creepy BioShock-esque virtual reality “escape room” replete with narration from an omnipresent, mildly demonic-sounding Colonel Sanders. Cool!

Per a press release, the chain is incorporating the VR environment — experienced via Oculus Rift headsets — into its employee training program to show trainees how to make its signature Original Recipe fried chicken. In order to get out of the virtual escape room, employees will have to play as a pair of disembodied hands to demonstrate (virtual) mastery of the five-step cooking process — inspecting, rinsing, breading, racking, and pressure-frying — all the while being cajoled by a cackling Colonel.

But why? The press release notes that this VR exercise takes workers through the chicken cooking process in just 10 minutes, as opposed to the 25 minutes it takes IRL, so perhaps the idea here is to speed up the training process (and to avoid potentially wasting product). Or hey, maybe somebody at KFC HQ just got a really good deal on a whole pallet of Oculus Rifts.

According to a KFC spokesperson, though, the VR won’t replace hands-on experience: “The game is intended to supplement the existing Chicken Mastery program, not replace it. This is intended to be a fun way to celebrate the work KFC’s more than 19,000 cooks do every day in every restaurant across the U.S. in an engaging way.”

KFC has delved into plenty of weird tech recently — see the takeout box that also functions as a phone charger and the chicken bucket that incorporates a photo printer — but those are typically limited availability items that serve more as publicity stunts, rather than demonstrations of new technology the company is actually incorporating.

Experience KFC’s fast-food dystopian nightma— err, virtual reality training environment, below:

The 8 Most Ingenious Fast-Food Publicity Stunts of All Time - Recipes

From the proliferation of new vegan cookbooks and products, to the sudden appearance of vegan recipes in mainstream media publications, it’s clear that the vegan lifestyle is on the rise. In fact, a recent poll from The Vegetarian Resource Group indicates that 2.5% of Americans now eat a vegan diet, up from 0.9% in 2000. What is driving this movement towards a healthier diet? Let’s look at some of the individuals who are championing the cause, both celebrities and unsung heroes.

10. Erik Marcus – Publisher of and author of such books as The Ultimate Vegan Guide: Compassionate Living Without Sacrifice and Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money, Erik Marcus defined a new balanced approach to veganism. He encourages people to transition from their old way of eating, not by “cutting out” foods, but by “crowding out” animal products with new, exciting food choices. In his blog, he provides articles of interest to both new and established vegans and editorializes in a straightforward, no-nonsense style.

9. Alicia Silverstone – Actress, producer, author, activist, vegan mom… Alicia Silverstone is one busy woman. But the author of bestseller The Kind Dietmakes time to interact with and encourage new and aspiring vegans through her website, In addition to tips, recipes, and personal views on going green, she posts success stories that site members have shared with her, helping others to see the wonderful changes that a plant-based diet can bring to your health and well-being.

8. Neal Barnard, M.D. ­– The founding president of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), Dr. Barnard’s vegan advocacy is based on solid science. In a 2003 National Institutes of Health funded study, Dr. Barnard and associates proved that a vegan diet is more successful at regulating diabetes than the diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association. His 2011 bestseller 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart is just one of a dozen books he’s written on vegan nutrition. (To join the next online 21-Day Vegan Kickstart and receive tips and encouragement by email, visit

7. Isa Chandra Moskowitz – As the author or co-author of six bestselling vegan cookbooks, Moskowitz is a (punk) rockstar of vegan activism. Promoting what she calls “baketivism” or “vegan culinary activism” through her website, Post Punk Kitchen, Moskowitz believes the best inducement for people to consider a vegan diet is great-tasting vegan food options. In a February 2011 Natural Health review of her latest cookbook, Appetite for Reduction, Moskowitz is called “a tireless crusader against the perception that meatless, dairy-free meals taste like cardboard.”

6. Ingrid Newkirk – Newkirk is co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the largest animal welfare organization in the world today. Whatever one’s opinion of their tactics, no one can deny that Ingrid Newkirk’s organization brings attention to animal causes. While many advocates shake their heads at the audacity of PETA’s publicity stunts, they do get media coverage and drive curious visitors to PETA’s site, where an abundant amount of information for those open to a vegan diet awaits.

5. Oprah – While not vegan herself, media mogul Oprah Winfrey scored a big win for veganism in 2011, as she and 378 of her staff members tried a vegan diet for one week. In an episode of her popular talk show, she reported the positive results and interviewed Kathy Freston. (Many Oprah staffers chose to stick with a vegan diet, or at least reduce their consumption of animal products.) After the show, Freston’s book, Veganist, shot to number one on the bestsellers list. Information about the show and a vegan starter kit remain on Oprah’s website.

4. Ellen DeGeneres – Emmy-winning talk show host DeGeneres took the task of providing online vegan resources for her audience one step further, creating the site Going Vegan with Ellen. Veganism and animal welfare are frequent topics on Ellen’s weekday talk show (with an average viewership of 2.74 million people per episode), and the comic and her wife Portia are planning to open a vegan restaurant, as well as launch a vegan dog food line.

3. Bill Clinton – In a year where many famous faces declared they’d gone veg, perhaps the biggest surprise was Bill Clinton. Who could fail to take notice when the former President of the United States, noted for his love of fast food, showed up on CNN looking trim and discussing the health benefits he’s reaped from a plant-based diet? Perhaps no one person could have so easily legitimized the idea of a plant-based diet, taking it from an idea that seemed extreme to many to an idea whose time has come.

2. T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. – A lead scientist on the China-Cornell-Oxford Project – a groundbreaking 20-year diet and nutrition study – Dr. Campbell has scientifically demonstrated the causal relationhip between animal products and cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. He has authored literally hundreds of papers on nutrition and championed the health benefits of a plant-based diet for decades, but with the release of his 2005 book, The China Study, and participation in the 2011 documentary Forks Over Knives, he helped bring discussion of these diet-related health issues to a new peak.

1. Lee Fulkerson – Many readers may see the name Lee Fulkerson and wonder, Who? While he may not be a household name, Fulkerson – writer and director of the documentary Forks Over Knives – is the driving force behind a major wave of interest in veganism. In the past few months, celebrities as diverse as Ozzy Osbourne, Russell Brand, and Eliza Dushku have publicly credited their decision to adopt a vegan diet to Fulkerson’s film. Thousands of individuals outside the limelight have had the same experience. While relying on the knowledge of science luminaries such as Drs. Barnard, Campbell, and Caldwell Esselstyn, Fulkerson’s film breaks down the science in easily understandable terms and presents real-life examples of the positive changes a plant-based diet can have on health. More than a movie, Forks Over Knives is becoming a movement, with companion books, DVDs, and the opportunity for individuals or groups to hold screenings of the film in their community. Fulkerson’s brainchild can help you influence others to a plant-biased diet too.

UPDATE: Lee Fulkerson responds to topping the list and shares who he feels deserves the credit. Read the interview HERE.

Kasey Minnis | Facebook
That rare and elusive species known as the native Floridian, Kasey is passionate about protecting other endangered creatures. She lives by the principle “compassion and crochet for all,” and enjoys teaching others – including her husband of 20 years and two beautiful children – the benefits of cruelty-free eating by feeding them tasty vegan treats from her kitchen. Contact Kasey at [email protected] or follow her on Facebook.

Fortnite, In Real Life

If I asked you to name a company that are estimated to be valued at over 8.5 billion dollars in January 2019, Epic Games probably wouldn’t be one of the first names on your list. Epic Games, Inc. formerly Potomac Computer Systems, is an American video game developer based in Cary, North Carolina. The company was founded by Tim Sweeney as Potomac Computer Systems in 1991, originally located in his parents’ house in Potomac, Maryland.

This might not mean a lot to most people reading the opening paragraph, however one word will likely change that.

Fortnite (this does not mean 2 weeks).

To provide some context in case you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know what Fortnite is. It is a survival game where 100 players from all over the world parachute from a big blue “Battle Bus” onto the Fortnite map and the last player alive wins. Players can also select game mode options to play as part of a team where the last team standing wins. This may seem a bit gruesome if you haven’t seen a game of Fortnite, the characters are all cartoon based and there are no blood or guts so can parents of young children please chill out.

The game has attracted massive attention, with over 40 million logins each month. Pretty good for a “free” game isn’t it? Yes that’s right, it costs absolutely nothing to download and play Fortnite yet it generated over 645 million dollars in three months. This is mostly from in-game cosmetics and the games internal currency called “V-Bucks” (which you can buy with real money) which are used to buy new characters, accessories and even dances.

Public Relations

Epic games specifically with Fortnite use very clever Public Relation strategies, which in some cases has even gained attention from the mainstream media. To add some more context, within the game there is the possibility of finding a “llama” which contains useful materials for players to use to their advantage.

It is quite a good thing if a players finds a llama which are scattered all over the map and can be found anywhere. For the official launch of the much anticipated Fortnite Season 5, Epic Games organised for these in-game llamas to appear in different locations all over the world (yes real life).

This was a very unusual way to raise anticipation for the season 5 update but it got a very positive response from social media. It encouraged people who had no idea what Fortnite was to download the free game and gave Epic Games the potential to make even more money.

Durr Burger

Another example of Epic games PR stunts was “Durr Burger”. To add some context, there is a location within Fortnite called “Greasy Grove”. This place is centred on a fast food burger restaurant, whose mascot is called “Durr Burger”.

Within the game at the beginning of season 5 mysterious things started happening, items were disappearing from the map and appearing elsewhere. Epic games organised this to happen with “Durr Burger”. It had disappeared from its home on the top of the restaurant and players were wondering where it was, then this happened.

“Durr Burger” was spotted in real life, like the llamas. In a Californian dessert a real life “Durr Burger” showed up, this gained a huge amount of attention on social media. Members of the public were visiting “Durr Burger”, taking photos and was a very popular topic on local radio in California.

Epic Games spend a lot of time on developing Fortnite, creating new content within the game with weekly and seasonal updates to keep it fresh and attract new players. Season 7 came out with a widely-predicted Christmas themed update, but Epic Games will certainly have future surprises for us.

Eoin Crossan is a final year BSc in Communication Management & Public Relations student at Ulster University. He can be found on LinkedIn at:

7. Volvo's Not-So-Safe Car Safety Demo

In May of 2015, Volvo's driver-assistance model XC60 was just hitting the scene. This driver assistance enhanced car had many features that were designed to make the cars more safe, but were not designed with the intention of drivers attempting to go into auto-pilot mode. One Volvo dealership owner didn't seem to realize this, and he organized a large promotional demonstration with much fanfare to attract users to his dealership to see the new features in action. Once a large crowd had assembled, the dealer wanted to show that if the car came up against a large mass of objects or items, it would come to a hault. Unforutnately, when the dealer attempted to show this feature off, the car did not stop as planned. It initially rolled slowly backward, but then shot ahead, ending up striking some of the people in attendance. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured, but it was a definite public relations black eye for Volvo to deal with.

Volvo was upset, and understandably so. First of all, this demonstration was not an event sanctioned by corporate headquarters. Secondly, the driver assist technology was never intended to be used in the way the dealer in this case had attempted. The new technology, which was named "City Safety" was designed to prevent the collision of vehicles operating closely under low rates of speed, such as at stop signs or red lights. There actually was an optional feature to detect pedestrians as well, but the car used in this promotional event was not equipped with it. Volvo disavowed the demonstration, saying that it never should have been attempted as their design still intends for users to be in control. Therefore, even in a vehicle with the pedestrian detection system, if a driver floors it, the car will still careen forward.

Living Mas: A Night at the Taco Bell Hotel

“This is a real fire festival!” screams self-proclaimed Big Gay Andrew as he takes the stage to claim his prize. The crowd around the pool erupts in cheers and applause. It’s Sunday evening and he’s just scored an Xbox, three of four in total that are handed out in a bastardized game of bingo called Tacos. Big Gay Andrew, my friend Natalie, about 100 Taco Bell acolytes — or Bellheads as I like to think of them — and I, are surrounding a pool in Palm Springs on the last night of operation at the Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel and Resort.

The May 2019 announcement of the hotel was startling — a hotel? Really? — and the item was picked up by seemingly every news outlet. CBS, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Fox — you name it, it was there. Renderings showed a colorful graphic backdrop featuring desert staples like palm trees and chaparral mixed in with taco shells, slushy cups and Taco Bell logos behind a pool filled with hot sauce packet floating mattresses. The theme carried into the guest rooms. Wall art? Packets. Wall paper? Packets. Bed pillow? Natch.

According to the statement, The Bell was going to be a “destination inspired by tacos and fueled by fans” and promised that “everything from guest rooms to breakfast and poolside cocktails will be infused with a Taco Bell twist, making this the flavor-filled getaway of 2019.” Prospective guests could sign up for an email list to receive more info about reservations to the limited-time only “tacoasis.” Later it was announced that the hotel would only be open for four nights.

A marketing novice by no means, Taco Bell has pulled various publicity stunts throughout the years. In 1996 it claimed to buy the Liberty Bell, and it 2001 it dropped a 40’ x 40’ target out into the South Pacific, saying that if a piece of the Mir space station struck it, every person in the United States could get free Taco Bell taco. No piece hit the target.

Fearing the hotel could go the way of the Fyre Festival, I tracked the event’s official hashtag (#tacobellhotel) leading up to the launch, hoping to get a sneak peek, looking out for snags. But as the first posts began to appear on check-in day there were no sad sandwiches or FEMA tents in sight — the feed was full of sauce packet room keys and branded bikes, all adorned with a cache of Taco Bell Hotel Instagram Stories GIFs.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Taco Bell is rooted in superlatives, its slogan is Live Mas. It’s home of the Doritos Locos Taco, the Quesarito, Fourthmeal. Items here are stuft, supreme, XXL. And at the Bell, excess is ubiquitous, subtlety nonexistent.

I didn’t come to the Bell as an official member of the media. Like the other Bellheads lucky enough to snag one of the 70 rooms available, I sat at my computer refreshing the browser incessantly in the minutes before reservations opened. And I had a plan. Feeling that most people would jump for the first day available (Thursday), or the obvious Friday and Saturday, I’d opt for Sunday night.

Clicking on the reservation button as soon as it appeared led to a screen with a message saying “I knew we were popular, but this is a bit much” that urged users to keep their “crossed fingers on that refresh button”. They’d planned for this too. Hitting refresh after this seemed futile and my hopes sank with every click. But then the pay screen popped up. Card in front of me I selected Sunday, populated my info and submitted. I GOT IT! Yelling, arms in the air, I stood up from my desk and started to pace around, maniacally. The majority of the office didn’t understand or take part in my elation so I did the best thing I could think of — I tweeted.

“Today will forever be known as the day I got a room at the @tacobell hotel” along with a screenshot of my reservation. The response I was looking for began rolling in in the form of likes within seconds. Comments continued throughout the day — “Lucky!”, “Literal bullshit!” — as well offers to buy me out in my DMs and retweets, including one from the woman behind it all, Taco Bell’s former Global Chief Brand Officer, Marisa Thalberg. “Congratulations! #tacobellhotel #goldenticket”.

She was right, that’s exactly what it felt like. The rooms started at $169 and sold out in less than two minutes. Again the story appeared everywhere along with screenshots of Bell hotel dreams shattered.

“I see it! There!” I shriek as the hotel sign comes into sight. We drove here from Natalie’s home in Orange County, hypothesizing on the way what was in store for us.

“Do you think it’s going to be the same hotel staff?” she asks.

“No way,” I reply. “They’re going to want full control of their image.”

As we pull past the Bell sign and into the valet area a man asks if we were checking in. We say yes and give him my last name. Without a clipboard in hand he waves us along. Maybe he had an earpiece? Or did he just know? The lobby door swings open as we exit the car and walk inside under an awning of multicolor streamers.

“Welcome to the Bell hotel! Let’s get you checked in,” says the man behind the front desk.

Execution is precise. Within minutes of checking in gift bags are doled out and festival-style woven wristbands affixed — one for the night you’re staying, one allowing you to drink, both branded with the Bell graphic scheme. The welcome drink, a watermelon popsicle submerged in Baja Blast, is served next to the front desk in a plastic wine tumbler. There are around 15 other people inside, every one of them wide-eyed and giggling. The guest to staff ratio remains consistently about 3:1.

Natalie and Kasia with welcome drinks in hand.

“Can you take a photo of us?” I ask the pretty girl making our drinks.

She happily obliges before twisting the cups in our hands to fully reveal the hotel logo and proceeds to take several photos and a Boomerang I didn’t ask for.

“Have you been here the whole time?” I ask.

“Do you work for Taco Bell? Has it been fun?” I continue to prod.

She says she works for an event company and that it’s been really exciting. “Nothing like this has ever happened before and even if it happens again, this was the first time.” Versions of this sentiment are echoed during the course of our stay.

On the other side of the lobby is the concierge desk where we walk over to book nail appointments.

“They’re full, but we do have a few braiding appointments left,” she says from behind the podium.

We book a couple at $20 a person and head toward our room.

The Bell hotel immersion starts before your sauce packet key cards are given to you. The wifi network? The Bell. Password? Tacos4ever. The room number outside the door, toiletries, robes, mugs, even phone plate are all Bell branded. A Dyson air conditioner is plugged in, quietly humming on a credenza in front of the TV, clearly a new addition as well. A magnet on the fridge announces that “this is not a mirage” and that all the food items in the room are free. Inside the gift bag — which is an oversized tote — is an oversized sauce packet beach towel, cooling towel, sunscreen and welcome guide with a hotel map, menus, event schedule and more. Tonight there’ll be a game night at 6 p.m. (with prizes!) and a dive-in screening of Demolition Man at night.

“Everyone’s going to freak out,” I tell Natalie.

I try to sum up the plot and it’s not an easy task. I explain how in the movie only Taco Bell exists and how it’s talked about at length, but it’s not normal Taco Bell. I don’t feel very convincing.

A few pages back in the guide shows the other dive-in movie listing, Mean Girls, has a quote next to it. “‘You wanna do something fun? You wanna go to Taco Bell?’ Strong words from Karen in this coming-of-age classic. Other stuff happens too, but we know you’re watching for the Taco Bell reference.”

The 70 converted rooms all seem to be around the pool, where the majority of the activities take place. A DJ plays disco-tinged house music from a second floor balcony and the vibe is mellow, with most people drinking under shaded loungers. Coolers filled with various beverages sprinkle the area, as do the servers, who in their khaki bottoms and fitted white T’s are easily the best-looking group present.

One of them, a TV show-ready type who couldn’t be over 25, comes to take our order. He returns from the bar minutes later — camera-friendly smile, camera-friendly biceps bulging, serving us camera-friendly drinks. I ask to take a photo of him with our drinks.

We lay by the pool, which just like our room is thoroughly cooled. Mister fans surround the space and guests rest under umbrella shade or hang out in the water. The temperature reaches 105 degrees and I never feel miserable. In spite of needing key cards to enter the pool area, security guards stand at every gate and you’d be hard pressed to open a door on your own. Everyone appears happy, but in a mild way. People sneak furtive smiles as if we’re all in on a secret, but there’s little exuberance. Someone in the pool gets off a sauce packet float and no one claims it.

“Did people buy these or can we use them?” I ask a girl sipping a drink.

“No, they were all here. Go for it!” she responds cheerily.

Natalie and I flop onto the float in an attempt to share it. It doesn’t work but we’re trying to Live Mas. I crawl on and she takes a few photos of me.

Out of the pool and a few drinks later we start chatting up our server and one of the staffers. They’re both from in Los Angeles — one works for an event company and our server was cast for the part — and tell us the hotel has been in the works for a year and a half.

“What’s the mood been like the past few days?” I ask.

“Honestly, like this,” says the staffer looking out at the docile scene. “It’s not like Vegas or anything. There were a couple guys who got kinda drunk, but nothing too crazy.”

I tell them I wish people got more crazy and they agree.

Moments later we witness the wildest it gets the Bell, when the eponymous “Bell” goes off, reverberating through the speakers, and servers file out with trays of new products. Menu items are indicated on a movie theater-like Taco Bell board next to the bar that changes throughout the day. Like Pavlov’s dogs, guests dash toward the staff, snatching free trays of Strawberry Shortcake Twists and Nacho Fries with multiple dipping sauces. (Expect to see these in stores in upcoming months.) There was little reason to chase these items, however, as servers kept emerging with trayfulls. All said and done we had three servings of the twists.

Sufficiently buzzed, we walk into the salon located on the other side of the pool and sit in front of brightly lit vanities. The mirrors are lightly frosted with a Taco Bell logo making them look like a strip-mall salon circa 1988. I keep imagining Patrick Nagel art on the wall. The braiding goes quickly and I opt for the additional hot sauce packet flower cause Live Mas.

Hair braided, we return to our loungers, ready to try some of the not-free offerings on the menu and wait for game night to commence. Natalie orders the Palm Canyon Melt and I get the Toasted Cheddar Club, both arrive with a side of nacho fries. We have a new server now who gives more details about the Bell.

“The first night was the influencer night. I’ve never seen more people filming, with film crews walking behind them,” she says, eyes wide incredulous. “Later they just sat around the pool staring at their phones, it was creepy.” I could see the glow in their eyes, reveling in the deluge of likes, though admittedly I’d experienced something similar after posting my hot sauce packet pool picture.

She was from Los Angeles and cast for the part as well. “They were looking for a diverse group of people with serving experience,” she said. White, black, Asian, Hispanic — all demographics are represented here. No one is overweight, everyone is conventionally attractive. “There’s way too many of us here, two servers could cover this pool.”

“One guy called me out yesterday,” she said. “He was like, ‘all of you aren’t just servers! All of you are good looking!’ And I’m like, ‘What did you think? Thanks for saying I’m good looking, I guess?’”

Paid-for food and several more drinks later it was time for the game. Everyone receives a Tacos game card and beans for pieces while a relentlessly energetic MC hypes the crowd. Balls keep slipping out of the cage but no one seems to care. Out of beans, Natalie and I use fries for game pieces. Live Mas.

The bell of the Bell goes off again and pandemonium ensues. More servers wearing clear fanny packs stuffed with sauce packets come around, trays brimming with food. This time we’re handed Toasted Cheddar Chalupas (also coming to locations soon) and I’m so full I can barely get half of it down. I start turning away free food.

After six hours at the pool we duck into our room to rinse off before movie night. I feel very uncomfortable.

“Let’s just wear our robes,” says Natalie.

We shower and don our Bell hotel robes.

“Where are our beds?” says Natalie as we walk out back to the pool area.

We plop down on the loungers and the menu board changes. In front of us, a man appears to be passing out in the corner of the spa, where dozens of bugs drawn the light struggle, drowning. The servers, looking concerned, start to approach him but he shakes awake right before one of them nudges him.

Soon after some of the people around us come out wearing robes. Then more servers with trays. Two different kinds of popcorn, nachos. The crowd, predictably, cheers during the Taco Bell mentions in Demolition Man.

I turn to Natalie, “Wanna go back to our room?”

She’s passing out, popcorn covers our robes.

We waddle back the twenty or so yards to our room, groaning along the way. Inside, a turndown service has taken place, and a taco shaped cookie rests on either side of the bed.

I take a bite, set it on my nightstand and try to find a comfortable position for laying — it’s impossible.

We wake up foggy, bloated, with more free food at the door.

Pancake delights and a build-your-own taco bar are delivered. The pancake delights are Gusher-like donut holes filled with maple syrup, a mix of sweet and warm and slightly savory so perfectly engineered that in spite of feeling gorged we finish them. We finish all the food.

A quick stop at the gift store and we leave the Bell. On the drive back before going to the airport I grab a pack of Skittles and an Almond Joy for lunch, milking my last bit of Live Mas lifestyle before my flight, work and normal life resume.

I’ve been eating Taco Bell since I moved to this country when I was seven. Taco Bell headquarters are minutes from my parents’ Southern California home. I remember the co-branded Gordita/Godzilla launch. My mom would take me there as a treat sometimes after elementary school back when they had kids meals on the menu. In high school a friend of mine collected the hot sauce packets when Taco Bell began printing messages on them. My favorite one said, “When I grow up I want to be a waterbed.” I went to the Pacifica location in recent years on my birthday and made it a point to go to the Tokyo one when I was in Japan — they don’t have beans there. I have a long-term emotional connection to the brand, and am clearly not alone.

Taco Bell has created a stronger image than any other fast food company. More than most brands, actually. If Taco Bell was a car it’d be a Baja Blast-branded ATV with Quesarito exhausts spewing hot sauce packets that the vehicle is somehow powered by. It’s extreme, but also wholesomely extreme if that’s a thing. This isn’t a Monster energy drink. You’d let your daughter go to prom with Taco Bell — sure, you’d prefer the Cheesecake Factory — but at least it’s not Jack in the Box.

The hotel is a magnum opus for the brand. Part social experiment, part brand activation, 100% a statement. The whole event was recorded and tracked. Taco Bell knows who paid for these fades and drinks, who posted using the hashtag. We all had to sign waivers acknowledging our image could end up being used in promotional material. While other fast food brands buckled under pressure and began offering healthy options Taco Bell kept escalating — putting items like the Cheesy Gordita Crunch on the menu — and its sales escalated accordingly. Being ridiculous has paid Taco Bell very handsomely because they’re in on the joke. Taco Bell is more than a company, more than hotel — it’s a lifestyle. It’s YOLO. It’s FOMO. It’s IDGAF. It’s floating on a hot sauce packet, eating a chalupa, drinking a drink with a popsicle inside of it. It’s Living Mas. And people really want to do that — or at least they think they do.

Kasia Pawlowska loves words. A native of Poland, Kasia moved to the States when she was seven. The San Francisco State University creative writing graduate went on to write for publications like the San Francisco Bay Guardian and KQED Arts among others prior to joining the Marin Magazine staff. Topics Kasia has covered include travel, trends, mushroom hunting, an award-winning series on social media addiction, and loads of other random things. When she’s not busy blogging or researching and writing articles, she’s either at home writing postcards and reading or going to shows. Recently, Kasia has been trying to branch out and diversify, ie: use different emojis. Her quest for the perfect chip is a never-ending endeavor.

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Bookermania at Morgan Library: All the Contentious Glory of the Man Booker Prize

On September 13, Manhattan’s august Morgan Library launched Bookermania, a show dedicated to 45 years of the Man Booker Prize. For those curious about the story behind the headline-hogging award, and the company that this year’s winner Eleanor Catton has just joined, this jewel-box exhibit showcases the prize that ignited the careers of writers from V.S. Naipaul to D.B.C. Pierre, and helped shape the canon of postcolonial literature. A shallow shelf running around the wall displays first editions of prizewinning and shortlisted novels, from P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For in 1969 to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. It’s an impressive collection, with more classics and fewer obscurities than the odds might suggest. According to curator Sheelagh Bevan, the display is designed to celebrate the physical book and the importance of cover design, while at the same time showing off what everyone comes to the Booker to find: intellectual battles, backstabbing, and bitchery.

The Morgan’s archive, drawn from its acquisition of literary agent Peter Straus’s vast collection, contains some 4,000 items. The selection on display — of correspondence, notebooks, annotated proofs, and newspaper clippings — testifies to the argumentative journey toward choosing each year’s winner, and demonstrates the outsize cultural impact the prize has had since its creation. Controversy has been built into the Booker since it began. The prize’s initial sponsor was Booker McConnell, described by The Guardian in 1968 as “an international company dealing in sugar, rum, mining machinery and James Bond.” The company had been booted out of the former British Guiana when the country declared independence, and established the prize in part to raise its profile and reputation in the U.K. This strategy backfired early, when the 1972 prize-winner John Berger used his acceptance speech to attack the company’s long and dirty trading history, stating that “the modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation,” and promising to donate half his winnings to the London arm of the Black Panthers.

However, the Booker organizers were savvy enough to realize that such public shaming could only draw attention to the prize. Its innovation of releasing a shortlist several weeks before the winner was announced was designed to stimulate both comment and commerce — in 1980, with two of its authors on the shortlist, Penguin was the first publisher to rush out paperback editions flagged in bright orange as nominees. The transparency of revealing the shortlist (and since 2001, the longlist) has made Booker-watching and Booker-bashing into British national sports, and some of its decisions seem designed to bait the press, such as including celebrities, like Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey and celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, on the judging panels. The latest outcry is over the new rules allowing U.S. entrants, which writers including Julian Barnes have warned will skew the results, thanks to British “cultural cringe” in the face of American blockbusters.

What makes Booker controversies more compelling than other instances of literary sour grapes is that the fiercest and most colorful criticism often comes from judges and board members, not just shunned novelists. In 2001, judge A.L. Kennedy complained that the award was based on “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.” Unfortunately the notes from judges’ meetings are embargoed for 20 years, so the Morgan can’t reveal London’s current literary drug-dealers and bed-hoppers. On the flip side, there is also evidence here of judicial high-mindedness. In a letter from 2005, when his novel The Sea won the award, John Banville thanks judge John Sutherland for his “quintessentially English sense of fair play” — Sutherland had gone to bat for The Sea even though earlier that year, the two had publicly tangled over Banville’s demolition of Ian McEwan’s Saturday in The New York Review of Books.

Booker criticism fluctuates between charges of elitism and denunciations of populism. In 2011, the judges were attacked for looking for “readability,” and the next year, the shortlist looked far more experimental—although the prize went to the (relatively) readable Mantel. The prize guidelines call for a “full-length novel,” but what that means is up to the judges: this year, Colm Tóibín’s 104-page The Testament of Mary is the shortest work ever nominated. By operating no other categories, the Booker places particular pressure on the novel genre, and has long had an uneasy relationship with history and memoir. J.G. Ballard’s chance of winning in 1984 for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun was torpedoed, ironically, for alleged factual inaccuracies, while Thomas Keneally, who had won for Schindler’s Ark two years, originally signed a non-fiction contract for the book.

Since the early 󈨊s, U.K. bookmakers have published odds on the winners, and as The Atlantic recently reported, Graham Sharpe, the head of Britain’s biggest bookie William Hill, is regularly consulted for his opinion on the winners’ chances. He had no clear favorite this year, and told the BBC that this was “one of the most competitive shortlists for years.” But now the fun is over for another year, fans of literary feuds and rivalries can get their fix at the Morgan — at least until the National Book Award shortlist comes out.

“Bookermania” is at the Morgan Library and Museum from September 13 to January 5, 2014.

Diaper masks, close quarters: Fast-food restaurants have struggled to protect workers from COVID-19

In the crowded kitchen of a McDonald’s outlet on a working-class commercial stretch of Oakland, it was as though the coronavirus didn’t exist.

Social distancing wasn’t enforced in the early weeks of the pandemic, workers at the Telegraph Avenue store claimed: As they boxed Big Macs, scooped French fries and bagged orders, they often stood shoulder to shoulder.

2:55 PM, Jan. 21, 2021 This article stated that “Aguántante” is a Spanish word for “put up with it.” The correct spelling is “Aguántate.”

There weren’t enough masks, so managers told workers to improvise, offering up a box of dog diapers somebody had left at the store. Often, the outlet was so busy that workers said they had no time to wash their hands, let alone disinfect the countertops.

The outlet’s coronavirus information poster was of little help: It was printed in English, and most of the roughly 40 workers spoke Spanish.

When the coronavirus surged through the store in May, employees — even those with symptoms — said they were pressured to keep working, according to formal complaints filed with the local health department and the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Cashier Yamile Osoy, 26, developed such severe COVID-19 symptoms that she told her shift manager that she felt sick and wanted to go home. According to her complaint, he ordered her to lower her mask so she could breathe easier — and finish her shift.

By summer, the coronavirus had flared at nine other McDonald’s outlets within 15 miles of the Telegraph Avenue store, with more than 70 workers and their families testing positive or exhibiting symptoms, the formal complaints show. Many of those employees worked at more than one outlet, potentially spreading the infection.

It’s a pattern that has repeated itself across the country as fast-food restaurants have struggled to maintain the health and safety of front-line workers who face conditions that frequently put themselves and their families at risk of contracting COVID-19.

A lack of protective equipment and social distancing and pressure to work at all costs have persisted deep into the pandemic, according to a review of summaries of 1,600 complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration concerning the coronavirus in the nation’s fast-food industry, along with 200 additional accounts found in health department records, lawsuits and news reports.

The documents offer an equally troubling record of regulators who have been slow to intervene.

So far, only three fast-food outlets in the U.S. have been cited for an OSHA violation in connection with a coronavirus-related complaint: a pie shop in Washington state, an Arby’s in Oregon and a waffle house in Minnesota. OSHA has levied only one fine, against the pie shop for $2,700, records show.

On-site investigations have been rare. In response to those 1,600 COVID complaints over the course of the pandemic, inspectors have visited only 56 fast-food outlets, according to OSHA records.

Nearly 600 cases remain open. But authorities closed about 1,000 cases without an inspection, the OSHA records show. Instead of visiting stores and interviewing workers, inspectors sent letters to owners. Some OSHA inspectors invited store managers to investigate complaints themselves and report back, the records show.

“OSHA investigates every complaint, whether it is received as a formal or informal complaint, or whistleblower complaint,” a Department of Labor spokesman wrote in an email. He did not comment on the low number of citations.

Local health officials, who have authority to enforce COVID-19 safety measures, have often failed to pick up the slack. A county health inspector responsible for the Telegraph Avenue McDonald’s was assigned to monitor health and safety compliance at “nearly 300 other facilities,” including several with COVID outbreaks, she wrote in an email to the outlet’s owner. And when she finally made an inspection, she went to the kitchen and began checking the temperature of the meat — a routine food-safety procedure.

The inspector did not talk to workers, said attorney B.J. Chisholm, who represents employees in a lawsuit against the outlet’s owner. In the July report, the inspector wrote: “All covid requirements are in place.”

The report came after a judge ordered the owner to upgrade safety measures in order to reopen.

Spokeswoman Neetu Balram wrote that the Alameda County health department “does its best to distribute work evenly among all staff, which has increased due to impacts of the pandemic.”

Michael Smith, who operates the Telegraph Avenue store, did not respond to specific accusations. In a written statement, Smith said that he had gone to great lengths to keep his workers safe during the pandemic, spending thousands of dollars to purchase protective gear and imposing “rigorous” safety procedures. “Our people are the heart and soul of my organization,” he wrote.

Citing complaints by workers, a bill was introduced Thursday in the California State Assembly that aims to improve safety standards for fast-food employees amid COVID-19.

“A disempowered work force faces a crisis in an industry with a poor history of compliance with workplace health and safety regulations,” the legislation reads.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San-Diego), who introduced the legislation, said she hopes the measure will boost the state’s enforcement of health and workplace protection laws and give workers a voice over workplace safety issues.

In March, Chipotle outlets in New York City were roiled by four worker strikes over coronavirus concerns. In June, 10 employees of a Chick-fil-A near Kansas City fell ill with COVID-19. In July, an employee of a Santa Monica Burger King died after working for a week while sick with a cough and other COVID-19 symptoms, according to a complaint, sparking a walkout.

It’s unclear whether McDonald’s has had more outbreaks at its locations or done a poorer job than other fast-food businesses at protecting its workers. However, McDonald’s USA has accumulated far more complaints than any other chain — more than 150 compared with Subway, the next on the list, with 40 — in keeping with its dominant share of the industry.

The nation’s largest fast-food restaurant chain, with 14,000 stores, is a staple for millions of families for a quick meal and is emblematic of the challenges the industry faces.

It has claimed it’s an industry leader when it comes to COVID-19 precautions, imposing more than 50 enhanced safety procedures to guard against the virus in its restaurants and engaging the Mayo Clinic for advice on how to “further enhance hygiene and cleanliness practices in support of customer and crew safety.”

Complaints filed by McDonald’s employees in 37 states, however, portray some of the chain’s outlets, both franchises and corporate-owned, as COVID-19 incubators: at their worst, crowded workplaces with inadequate protective gear and safety procedures.

Even when cases of COVID-19 appeared among staff, outlets remained open for business, according to the complaints, which were filed with state and federal regulators from March through Dec. 13.

Restaurant cleaning was haphazard after cases were detected, and masks and gloves were in short supply, according to complaints. Sick pay and quarantine pay were not available in some stores, and given grudgingly in others, workers claimed.

As staffing levels fell in stores where COVID-19 had taken hold, employees filed complaints saying they were pressured to work double shifts or cover shifts at other outlets experiencing outbreaks.

In U.S. cities, McDonald’s employees typically earn about $15 an hour, according to the Service Employees International Union, which is seeking to unionize the fast-food industry. Many of those who filed complaints said they felt compelled to work even when sick, or risk having their hours cut or losing their jobs entirely.

Wrote Walter Cortez, a worker at another McDonald’s in the Bay Area: “The managers say, ‘Aguántante’” — put up with it — “because there is no one to cover your shift.”

McDonald’s executives maintain that the vast majority of its outlets are clean and safe.

Bill Garrett, who heads the company’s coronavirus task force, said he knew of only “a few isolated instances” in which the virus had been an issue at McDonald’s franchises.

“What I can tell you is we’re watching things very, very closely and we’re not seeing any type of large or widespread problem that we would react to,” he said.

Altogether, more than 230 McDonald’s outlets from Maine to Hawaii have been the subject of state or federal coronavirus complaints and health department reports. The virus has flared in about 140 of these outlets, and at least 500 workers and family members have fallen ill with COVID-19, according to the complaints and health reports. Dozens of franchise owners have self-reported additional cases among their employees.

That’s a tiny percentage of U.S. McDonald’s outlets. But the number of COVID-19 cases at McDonald’s is probably far higher than available information shows. Only three state health departments — Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon — publish data identifying businesses where workers have been infected with the coronavirus. All three recorded McDonald’s outbreaks, including one in eastern Oregon in which 40 people associated with two McDonald’s outlets near Hermiston became infected in July.

Blake Casper, owner of 63 McDonald’s franchises in Florida, said in an interview that about 100 of his 3,500 workers had become ill with COVID-19 so far, cases that do not appear in OSHA complaints or public state health department data. Casper, who is also chairman of the National Owners Assn., a franchisees group, contended that only one of those workers had gotten ill at work, citing contact tracing by his human resources department.

Franchisees like Casper run almost all the nation’s outlets. These independent owners pay rent and a cut of sales to McDonald’s USA, but set workers’ pay and benefits themselves. Casper said they have borne most of the financial cost of responding to the pandemic.

“We all got surprised — shocked — when this thing came barreling down in early March,” Casper said. Franchisees “scrambled” to buy protective gear and establish safety procedures, he said. They received guidance from corporate headquarters, he said, but little in the way of financial assistance, beyond McDonald’s using its massive buying power to secure special prices on protective gear.

SEIU officials said McDonald’s workforce has been deeply worried about contracting COVID-19 on the job. In a union survey from April, more than 90% of respondents said they had trouble getting masks, and one in five reported working while ill, either because they lacked paid sick leave or were afraid of being penalized for not showing up. The union also points to strikes over COVID safety that have shut down more than 100 McDonald’s outlets in 20 cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Oakland. The company has dismissed the strikes as publicity stunts.

As the pandemic unfolded, McDonald’s USA ordered franchisees to comply with a long list of safety measures: They were required to enforce social distancing, provide adequate protective gear and ensure that cleaning procedures were followed, said Garrett, the executive in charge.

McDonald’s USA also pushed franchisees to offer paid sick leave to workers during the pandemic. But franchisees pushed back, saying they were “losing faith” in management because the company wasn’t providing the financial relief they needed.

McDonald’s USA backed away from the sick-pay issue. But David Tovar, a company spokesman, said he is confident that McDonald’s workers can get paid sick leave during the crisis — either from franchisees or through provisions of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act and state and local laws.

Meanwhile, the company says it has aided its franchisees by deferring hundreds of millions of dollars in rent and royalty payments and by pumping $100 million into marketing.

Many franchisees also have gotten help from federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, a feature of the CARES Act.

Operators of at least 70 McDonald’s outlets facing coronavirus complaints got the loans, collectively borrowing at least $50 million, according to Small Business Administration data. Among them was the corporation that owns the Telegraph Avenue store in Oakland, which borrowed at least $1 million in potentially forgivable loans. The money is intended to help businesses pay their workers.

More than 100 complaints, spread across nearly 60 towns and cities, accused McDonald’s of botching its response to a known COVID-19 case, either by failing to shut down for a proper cleaning or by neglecting to get exposed workers into quarantine. Some of the complaints date back to the chaotic early weeks of the pandemic, but many others date from late summer or fall, after stores had time to solidify safety protocols.

Often, workers complained that they weren’t informed when COVID-19 hit their workplace. An employee at a Chicago outlet said she learned from a Facebook post that a co-worker had tested positive. Managers kept things under wraps to avoid ordering quarantines, complainants claimed.

In dozens of other complaints, as recently as November, McDonald’s staff said they found themselves working alongside employees with obvious flu-like symptoms, records show. As a worker in Jasper, Tenn., complained in July, “Several employees are sick with fevers and are being told to continue to work.”

Some employees reported that paid sick leave was discouraged or unavailable, so they worked even when they knew they shouldn’t.

“Three people in my house tested positive,” Rosa Contreras, a worker in Ontario, Calif., who lived with other McDonald’s employees, wrote in May. “But still I went to work one more day because I needed the money.” She said she later tested positive herself.

Some workers said they were required to enforce COVID safety rules, forcing them into conflict with customers.

In May, an irate customer in Oklahoma City shot and wounded three workers after being told an outlet’s dining area was closed because of the pandemic. In June, in Oakland, a 19-year-old cashier described being punched and slapped by a customer after she told him to wear a mask. In July, a Chicago customer who was admonished to wear a mask attacked a worker, slapping her and pulling her hair as bystanders videotaped the altercation.

As employees were circulated among outlets, the virus appeared to follow them — an allegation made in complaints from across the country.

After the May outbreak at Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue outlet, coronavirus cases were reported at a McDonald’s outlet three miles away in Berkeley, near the University of California campus.

By the end of June, more than 20 Berkeley workers and family members were ill with COVID-19 and soon other outlets in Oakland and Hayward had recorded infections, according to complaints.

Similar multi-store outbreaks occurred at McDonald’s outlets in Los Angeles and on Hawaii’s Big Island.

In May, workers backed by SEIU sued McDonald’s in Chicago, claiming the risk of COVID-19 was so great that four outlets in the city should be declared public nuisances. The lawsuit accused operators of violating a state safety order by failing to enforce mask wearing and social distancing, and by not informing workers about COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace.

In June, Circuit Court Judge Eve Reilly found that at three stores, company policies “are failing to be properly implemented.” She ordered McDonald’s of Illinois and a franchisee to impose social distancing and enforce the wearing of masks.

Emboldened by union organizers, 20 workers at the Telegraph Avenue McDonald’s in Oakland walked off the job in May, forcing the store to shut down. The workers sued and an Oakland judge imposed strict conditions for the outlet to reopen.

It reopened on July 15 for drive-through only.

After developing COVID-19 symptoms and nearly fainting at work, Yamile Osoy went home to the single room in an Oakland apartment that she shares with her two boys. There she nursed the children through the infection even as she was battling it herself.

“I felt bad,” she said. “But who was going to take care of my kids if I didn’t?”

She hasn’t worked since May. Her partner has helped with the rent, and she has depended on food banks for groceries.

She hopes to go back to work at McDonald’s as soon her old $14.14-an-hour job on the night shift opens up. She really needs the money, she said.

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This article was reported by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit journalism organization based in Emeryville, California.

Reveal reporters Jennifer Gollan and David Rodriguez contributed to this story.

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