At Taco Bell, the Drag Brunch goes Corporate

CHICAGO — As drag brunch came to an end here at a Mexican restaurant last Sunday, the performers made their way through the crowd of about 40 revelers who had just gotten tipsy from Brunch Punch this way.

But this was no ordinary drag brunch; it was a Taco Bell Drag brunch. And that wasn’t a microphone in the head queen’s hand; it was a Grande Toasted Breakfast Burrito. That queen—a Mexican-American performer named Kay Sedia (pronounced quesadilla)—was the MC at a Taco Bell Cantina down the road near Wrigley Field, wearing a tight, form-fitting dress with the Taco Bell logo across the stomach.

In the 45-minute show, Kay Sedia pelted the audience (usually young, mostly white) and danced with her fellow performers: the dragon king Tenderoni and the queens Miss Toto and Aunty Chan, who tore it up as a hard-pressed Taco Bell cashier in a lip-synced mash-up of “She Works Hard for the Money” and “9 to 5”. On the diners’ tables sat a glittering box of a burrito (sausage, bacon, or veggie), a hash brown, and Cinnabon Delights donut holes. The sound of Taco Bell’s signature “bong” interrupted a drinking game.

Skyler Chmielewski, there to celebrate her 19th birthday, was transfixed. She grabbed a folding fan of the Taco Bell brand Drag Brunch and called her first drag show “breathtaking.”

“I’m short of words,” she said.

There may be nicer 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’s Pride celebrations, is arguably the most mainstream drag and dining marriage to date — a “phenomenal” step in the evolution of drag culture, said Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian.

“It’s been dragged across a border it hasn’t been before, to an exciting new place of accessibility,” said Mr. Jeffreys, who teaches theater at NYU and the New School. (He hadn’t been to any of the chain’s brunches.)

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

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

This is a time when companies are challenged to decide how best to support a brand-loyal group of consumers without alienating conservative customers or lawmakers. (Taco Bell takes its drag brunch to Florida, but isn’t 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 a percentage of their proceeds to LGBTQ organizations in June, and the Taco Bell Foundation is giving a grant to the It Gets Better Project to expand work fitness resources for LGBTQ youth. .

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

Hosting drag queens, said Dr. Oakenfull, “is no longer a risk,” and when companies get hot because they use drag as a marketing tool, “it doesn’t come from the people they care about.”

When Taco Bell posted a photo of the brunch in Las Vegas on Instagram, it got some negative reactions. But so far, complaints about the shows, like the breakfast salsa, have been mild.

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

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

Robert Fisher, a senior production designer at Taco Bell, said the idea for a drag brunch popped up a year ago within Live Más Pride, Taco Bell’s LGBTQ employee group, and made its way to the company’s chief executive, Mark King, who the green lighted.

Fisher, who founded Live Más Pride, said his executives understood that if a Taco Bell-hosted drag brunch felt legit, the company should pretend it was invited to be part of the LGBTQ community, “not as if Taco Bell is usurped drag for the sake of the tacos.’

The troupe signed Oscar Quintero, who goes by the name Kay Sedia and lives in Los Angeles, as the tour’s drag hostess, 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 performers have kept their language and material fairly clean and non-political.

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

Drag’s relationship with dining dates back to the mid-20th century, when drag revues in bars and restaurants targeted predominantly straight audiences. Historian Jeffreys estimates that drag brunches 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 drag brunch since 1991, and it continues to be popular.

Today, drag brunch is an essential weekend getaway in many cities, a staple for bachelorette parties and birthday parties. Food and tow continue to intersect in new ways, from meal delivery services to sausage parties.

For some keepers of drag history, Taco Bell’s brunch is the commercial torpedo finally sinking a subversive art form.

But others think the ship has sailed long ago. dragging is the mainstream, said Harry James Hanson, a co-author of “Legends of Drag,” a new book of photographic portraits of drag elders.

“When it comes to working on a corporate drag brunch, that’s right in the wheelhouse of drag queens,” said Mr. Hanson. “It’s those cultural ambassadors.”

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

Blake Hundley, a 25-year-old straight dad, said he drove three hours from his home in Dubuque, Iowa, to be first in line for the second of two Chicago shows — no surprise, considering he’s a Taco Bell. fan site, LivingMas.com, and eats at Taco Bell “at least” three times a week.

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

If not everyone is equally enthusiastic about his shows, the company is fine with that. Drag brunch “isn’t about politics or worrying about backlash,” said Sean Tresvant, Taco Bell’s global chief brand officer. “It’s about being authentic.”

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