In the late ’90s, Juneau had two Taco Bells. But by the early 2000s, they were both gone. Juneau has a history of fast food franchises coming and going, but the disappearance of the Taco Bells left a lot of rumors in its wake, from “employees were selling drugs” to “wasn’t it hepatitis?”
“Every business is gonna have drama and rumors and this and that,” said Jennifer Solano, who used to work at the Taco Bell in Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley. “To be honest, Taco Bell was a good, wholesome place to work. They taught me enough that I’ve been able to raise a family, continuing my career managing fast food restaurants.”
Solano runs a Subway in Anchorage now, but she started working for Taco Bell in Juneau as a teenager. In the mid-nineties, it sat where the Asiana Garden restaurant is now, across from Super Bear.
“We were having repeated problems with the [produce] shipments,” Solano said. “We would have to throw away sour cream, cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes. They were coming in continuously frozen when they were only supposed to be refrigerated, and we were having to waste a lot of money.”
Solano eventually became an assistant manager. She said getting quality produce from the Lower 48 was just one of many problems.
“Everything in the building was just kind of crumbling and falling apart,” Solano said. “There were so many times that the grease trap had to be re-done because the pipes underneath all the flooring were so old and brittle that they were actually collapsing.”
Plumbers were called in to try to fix the issue at night, which meant workers the next morning were walking on temporary floorboards.
“It’s not an overnight project,” she said. “So then we tried to keep staffing minimal so nobody was running into each other or getting hurt.”
The maintenance turned into a cycle. A pipe would be fixed, the flooring would be replaced, and another pipe would collapse somewhere else.
The Valley Taco Bell also went through several different managers. Solano said she often picked up the slack when one of them was attending meetings in Anchorage. At one point, it became a combination Taco Bell and Baskin Robbins.
“They would expect somebody that’s making burritos to go over and make a frappuccino,” Solano said. “You know, you gotta make cakes out of ice cream and you have to be able to decorate them and trying to run a Taco Bell side and trying to make cakes was pretty rough for me.”
Repairs became so expensive that the owners started looking for a new building to move to.
“But there was no good place in Juneau 18-20 years ago to put a fast food restaurant with a drive-thru in it,” Solano said. “So they decided they were gonna cut their losses and just go ahead and close the doors.”
Some workers didn’t even have advance notice that the restaurant was closing. They showed up the next day to a note on the door and were told to pick up their compensation checks.
The Valley location was the last Taco Bell to exist in Juneau, but at one point, the city had two — there was a smaller Taco Bell Express downtown. It shared a space with a Subway in a building where Sealaska Heritage is now.
Charles McKenry started there in 1987 and worked his way up to general manager.
“Taco Bell was doing a competition called the Golden Bell,” McKenry said. “We managed to take that store to number seven in the nation for quality and service out of 1,500 franchise stores.”
But the downtown restaurant wasn’t very profitable. It closed in the summer of 1999 when the corporate office decided to focus its efforts on the Valley location. McKenry was transferred there as a shift manager to try to improve the service.
“The gentleman running the store insisted that no one listen to me because it was his store and he would teach them his way, not necessarily the Taco Bell way,” McKenry said. “He didn’t care about quality or service. It was all about his bottom line, even if it meant not being honest about some of the numbers.”
Eventually McKenry quit because of that manager, but his experience wasn’t all bad.
“We had great people,” McKenry said. “It was a fantastic product. I mean I thoroughly enjoyed working for Taco Bell itself, but you can only take so much.”