He had a great vision. And despite naysayers, he stuck to his guns and eventually saw a hard-shell taco splattered with neon-orange cheese dust become a staple in the country's fast-food scene.
Todd Mills, the inspiration behind Taco Bell's Doritos Locos Tacos, died of cancer Thanksgiving morning.
He was 41.
USA Today brought Mills' story to our attention today. And it's an extraordinary tale. The paper reports:
"[Ginger] Mills said her husband often made taco salads using Doritos and frequently said someone should make taco shells out of the cheesy snack.
"In 2009, Mills wrote a letter to Frito-Lay pitching the idea. Their response was, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' Ginger Mills said.
"After receiving the rejection letter, he vowed to pursue the idea 'from the grass-roots level,' said longtime friend Jimmy Looney, who served in the Air Force with Mills.
"Mills started the Facebook page 'Taco Shells from Doritos Movement' in 2009, encouraging followers to 'tell Frito-Lay that we demand nacho cheesy taco shells!' "
On the page, Mills posted crude — but very funny — Photoshopped images of legends eating cheesy taco shells.
According to a May 2012 piece by the Arkansas Times, Mills kept this up for years, until one day, he got a call from Taco Bell, which wanted to invite him to its test kitchen.
Turns out Taco Bell was working on his dream: the Doritos Locos Tacos. Shortly thereafter, Taco Bell launched the tacos, which went on to become one of its most successful products. By August of this year, Taco Bell said it had sold 600 million Doritos Locos Tacos since the product launched in March 2012.
As the Arkansas Times reports, Mills didn't see a penny from Taco Bell. He told the paper:
" 'Everybody that I tell about this says "You should be getting some money off these." ' Nevertheless, Mills seems to shrug off the idea that he should lawyer up. 'I've never once said that I deserved any sort of compensation,' he said. 'I can't be the first person to think of this.'
"On the other hand: 'If they wanted to send me a big taco check, that would be alright.' "
According to the Taco Shells made from Doritos Movement Facebook page, Mills is survived by his wife and his two young daughters.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And in our last word in business today, we are pausing a moment to remember the man whose imagination sparked a billion-dollar snack food. The Doritos Locos Tacos.
One night in 2009, Todd Mills was eating Taco Bell when a Doritos ad came on television. Mills looked at his wife and said, how awesome would it be if this taco shell was a Dorito?
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
He later told the Arkansas Times, that's what prompted the Little Rock native to contact a Frito-Lay company. Frito-Lay wasn't interested. So Todd Mills took his campaign to Facebook. And Taco Bell took notice. The Doritos Locos Taco debuted last year. They sold 375 million tacos with total sale topping a billion dollars in sales through this year.
GREENE: Mills never asked for any compensation. But Taco Bell did make a small contribution to his health care fund when he was struck with cancer. Todd Mills died on Thanksgiving of brain cancer. He was 41 years old.
And that is the business news on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.