What happened to Taco Bell in Juneau?

Charles McKenry poses in front of the menu at Taco Bell in downtown Juneau in 1999. (Photo courtesy of Charles McKenry)

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 demise of the Taco Bells left plenty of rumors in its wake, ranging from “employees were selling drugs” to “wasn’t that hepatitis? “

“Every business is going to have drama and rumors and this and that,” said Jennifer Solano, who worked at Taco Bell in Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley. “To be honest, Taco Bell was a healthy good place to work. They taught me enough that I was able to raise a family and pursue my career in fast food restaurant management.

Solano now runs a subway in Anchorage, but she started working for Taco Bell in Juneau as a teenager. In the mid-90s, he sat where the Asiana Garden restaurant is now, across from Super Bear.

“We had repeated problems with the [produce] shipments,” Solano said. “We should throw away sour cream, cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes. They kept coming in frozen when they just needed to be refrigerated, and we were wasting a lot of money.

Solano eventually became assistant manager. She said getting quality products from the Lower 48 was just one of many issues.

“Everything in the building was falling apart and falling apart,” Solano said. “There were so many times the grease trap had to be redone because the pipes under all the flooring were so old and brittle they were actually collapsing.”

A small Taco Bell Express restaurant shared space with Subway in downtown Juneau before closing in 1999. (Photo courtesy of Charles McKenry)

Plumbers were called in to try and fix the problem overnight, which meant workers the next morning were walking on temporary floors.

“It’s not an overnight project,” she says. “So we tried to keep the staff minimal so that no one collided or got hurt.”

The interview turned into a cycle. A pipe would be repaired, the floor would be replaced, and another pipe would collapse elsewhere.

The Valley Taco Bell also went through several different managers. Solano said she often takes over when one of them attends meetings in Anchorage. At some point, it became a Taco Bell and Baskin Robbins combination.

“They would expect someone who makes burritos to come by and make a frappuccino,” Solano said. “You know, you have to bake ice cream cakes and you have to be able to decorate them and trying to manage a Taco Bell side and trying to bake cakes was pretty hard for me.”

Repairs became so expensive that owners began looking for a new building to move to.

“But there wasn’t a good place in Juneau 18-20 years ago to set up a fast food restaurant with drive-thru,” Solano said. “So they decided they were going to cut their losses and go ahead and close the doors.”

Some workers were not even given advance notice that the restaurant was closing. They showed up the next day to a note on the door and were told to collect 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 space with a subway in a building where Sealaska Heritage now stands.

In 1997, Juneau’s downtown Taco Bell won a Golden Bell award. It was named seventh in the nation for quality and service out of 1,500 franchise stores. (Photo courtesy of Charles McKenry)

Charles McKenry started there in 1987 and worked his way up to general manager.

“Taco Bell was having a competition called Golden Bell,” McKenry said. “We were able to take this store to number seven in the country for quality and service out of 1,500 franchise stores.”

But the downtown restaurant was not very profitable. It closed in the summer of 1999 when the head office decided to focus its efforts on the Valley location. McKenry was moved there as shift manager to try to improve service.

“The gentleman who ran the store insisted that no one would listen to me because it was his store and he would teach them his way, not necessarily Taco Bell’s,” McKenry said. “He didn’t care about quality or service. It all depended on his results, even if that meant not being honest about some numbers.

Eventually, McKenry quit because of this manager, but his experience wasn’t all bad.

“We had great people,” McKenry said. “It was a fantastic product. I mean I really enjoyed working for Taco Bell itself, but you can’t take that much.

Now, if you’re craving a Crunchwrap Supreme, the Lunch Crunch Wrap at Lemon Creek Breeze In is pretty similar.

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