At Taco Bell, Drag Brunch Goes Corporate

CHICAGO — As the drag brunch drew to a close at a Mexican restaurant here last Sunday, performers made their way on conga through the crowd of about 40 revelers who were a little tipsy on Brunch Punch.

But this wasn’t your standard drag brunch; It was a Taco Bell Drag Brunch. And that wasn’t a microphone in the head queen’s hand; It was a large toasted breakfast burrito. That queen, a Mexican-American entertainer named Kay Sedia (pronounced quesadilla), was the MC at a Taco Bell cantina on the block from Wrigley Field, and she wore a ruffled slinky dress with a Taco Bell logo on her belly. she.

In the 45-minute show, Kay Sedia taunted the crowd (mostly young, mostly white) and danced with her peers – drag king Tenderoni and queens Miss Toto and Aunty Chan – who broke it up. as a struggling Taco Bell cashier in a lip-synced combination of “She Works Hard for the Money” and “9 to 5.” At the guest tables, a bright box contained a burrito (sausage, bacon or veggies), a hash brown and Cinnabon Delights donut holes. The sound of Taco Bell’s signature “bong” punctuated a drinking game.

Skyler Chmielewski, who was there to celebrate her 19th birthday, was transfixed. Clutching a Taco Bell Drag Brunch-branded folding fan, she declared her first drag show “awesome.”

“I’m speechless,” he said.

There may be more light-hearted ways to spend an afternoon at a Taco Bell, but it’s hard to imagine how. The five-city, 10-show Taco Bell Drag Brunch tour, which arrived in time for June Pride celebrations, is arguably the most conventional marriage of drag and dinner yet — a “phenomenal” step in the culture’s evolution drag, Joe said. E. Jeffreys, a drag historian.

“It’s been taken beyond a frontier that it hasn’t been before, to an exciting new place of accessibility,” said Mr. Jeffreys, who teaches theater studies at NYU and the New School. (He hadn’t been to one of the chain’s lunches.)

Taco Bell Drag Brunch is just the latest effort by corporate fast food chains to grab the attention of LGBTQ consumers. Taco Bell last year named rapper Lil Nas X as its “chief impact” and Burger King said that during June it would donate 40 cents from every order of its Ch’King sandwich to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ community. group of defenders.

However, the political landscape may be changing. The creation of “drag queen story hours” for children at public libraries across the country has sparked protests and some cancellations. In April, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a bill revoking Disney World’s special tax status, after the company spoke out against the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would limit or ban discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. in Florida public schools.

The moment is challenging corporations to decide how best to support a group of brand-loyal consumers without alienating consumers or conservative lawmakers. (Taco Bell is bringing its drag brunch to Florida, but it’s not among several companies that have raised concerns about recent legislation there and in other states.)

Many fast food brands are embracing this year’s Pride season. Chipotle and Shake Shack plan to donate percentages of their June profits to LGBTQ organizations, and the Taco Bell Foundation is providing a grant to the It Gets Better Project to expand workforce readiness resources for LGBTQ youth.

Gillian Oakenfull, a marketing professor at Miami University in Ohio, said current political struggles over gay and transgender issues don’t necessarily reflect what consumers think. When it comes to queer acceptance, she said, “Generation Z requires it.”

Hosting drag queens, Dr. Oakenfull said, “is no longer a risk,” and if corporations feel pressured because they use drag as a marketing tool, “it’s not coming from the people they care about.”

When Taco Bell posted a photo of the Las Vegas brunch on Instagram, it generated some negative feedback. But so far, complaints about the shows have been mild, as has his breakfast sauce.

The tour kicked off in Las Vegas on May 1 before hitting Chicago and Nashville, and will appear in New York City on June 12 and Fort Lauderdale, Florida on June 26. The events, which are free and limited to patrons 18 and over. older, are confined to Taco Bell Cantina locations because they serve alcohol, unlike other Taco Bell restaurants.

All of the reservations, more than 550, were quickly picked up in April by members of Taco Bell’s “Fire Tier” rewards program, the brand’s most loyal customers, who were the first to pick, according to a company spokesperson.

Robert Fisher, senior production designer at Taco Bell, said the idea for the drag brunch came about a year ago within Live More Pride, Taco Bell’s LGBTQ employee resource group, and reached the company’s CEO, Mark King. , who gave him the green light.

Fisher, who founded Live Más Pride, said his managers understood that if a Taco Bell-hosted drag brunch was going to feel legitimate, the company had to act as if it had been invited to be part of the LGBTQ community, “not as if Taco Bell was appropriating drag for the sake of tacos.”

The company hired Oscar Quintero, who performs under the name Kay Sedia and lives in Los Angeles, as the tour’s drag host, and hired local drag artists to perform with her in each city. (Taco Bell declined to say how much the tour cost and how much the talent was paid.) The artists have taken care to keep their language and material fairly clean and apolitical.

“I have a lot of people on social media who are across the political and religious spectrum and yet find it in their hearts to enjoy my work,” Mr. Quintero said. “When people start getting political, I just say, ‘Let me be an escape.’ ”

Drag’s relationship with food dates back to the mid-20th century, when drag revues in bars and restaurants catered to predominantly heterosexual audiences. Jeffreys, the historian, estimates that drag lunches began in the early 1990s, during the second decade of the AIDS crisis. Perry’s, a restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC, has hosted a drag brunch since 1991 and it remains popular.

Today, drag brunch is an essential weekend outing in many cities, a draw for bachelorette parties and birthdays. Food and drag continue to intersect in new ways, from meal delivery services to sausage-making parties.

For some guardians of drag history, Taco Bell brunch is the commercial torpedo that finally sinks a subversive art form.

But others feel the ship has sailed too long. Drag it is now squarely in the mainstream, said Harry James Hanson, co-author of “Legends of Drag,” a new book featuring photographic portraits of elderly drag.

“When it comes to working a corporate drag brunch, that’s squarely in the drag queen’s wheelhouse,” Hanson said. “They are those cultural ambassadors.”

Maybe that’s what’s happening at Taco Bell. After all, the company is introducing drag to audiences who might not otherwise attend a drag show if the invitation wasn’t from Taco Bell.

Blake Hundley, a 25-year-old straight father, said he drove three hours from his home in Dubuque, Iowa, to be first in line for the second of two shows in Chicago, which is not surprising considering he has a dating site. Taco Bell fans. , LivingMas.com, and eats at Taco Bell three times a week “at least.”

After the show, Mr. Hundley said that his first drag brunch was great and that he would return if the fast food chain hosted another. “My life is about Taco Bell,” he said.

If not everyone is so excited about their shows, the company is okay with that. Drag brunch “isn’t about politics or worrying about backlash,” said Sean Tresvant, Taco Bell’s global brand director. “It’s about being authentic.”

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