At Taco Bell, the Drag Brunch becomes corporate

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

But this was no standard drag brunch; it was a Taco Bell Drag Brunch. And it wasn’t a microphone in the head queen’s hand; it was a Grande grilled breakfast burrito. This queen – a Mexican American performer called Kay Sedia (pronounced quesadilla) – was the MC of a Taco Bell Cantina down the block from Wrigley Field, wearing a frilly bodycon dress with the Taco Bell logo on her stomach .

In the 45-minute show, Kay Sedia got the (mostly young, mostly white) crowd drunk and danced with fellow performers: drag king Tenderoni and queens Miss Toto and Aunty Chan, who ripped him apart as the beleaguered Taco Bell cashier in a lip-synced medley of “She Works Hard for the Money” and “9 to 5.” On the tables of diners, a glittering box contained a burrito (sausage, bacon or vegetarian), a hash brown and holes of Cinnabon Delights donuts. The sound of Taco Bell’s signature “bang” punctuated a drinking game.

Skyler Chmielewski, there to celebrate her 19th birthday, was transfixed. Grabbing a Taco Bell Drag Brunch-brand folding fan, she said her first drag show was “breathtaking.”

“I’m at a loss for words,” she said.

There may be more cheerful 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 wedding to date – a “phenomenal” step in the evolution of drag culture, said Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian.

“It’s crossed a boundary that it hasn’t been before, into an exciting new place of accessibility,” said Jeffreys, who teaches theater studies at NYU and The New School. (He hadn’t been to one of the chain’s brunches.)

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

However, the political landscape may be changing. The creation of “drag queen story hours” for children in public libraries across the country has drawn protests and 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 prohibit discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. in Florida public schools.

Now is the time to challenge companies to decide how best to support a group of brand-loyal consumers without alienating customers or conservative lawmakers. (Taco Bell takes its drag brunch to Florida, but isn’t among many companies that have expressed concern 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 profits in June to LGBTQ organizations, and the Taco Bell Foundation is awarding a grant to the It Gets Better Project to expand workforce readiness resources for LGBTQ youth.

Gillian Oakenfull, a marketing professor at the University of Miami in Ohio, said current political struggles over gay and transgender issues don’t necessarily reflect what consumers think. Regarding queer acceptance, she said, “Gen Z demands it.”

Hosting drag queens, Dr. Oakenfull said, “isn’t a risk anymore,” and if companies feel the heat for using drag as a marketing tool, “it’s not coming from the people who are theirs. dear”.

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

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 older, are held at Taco Bell Cantina locations because they serve alcohol, unlike other Taco Bell restaurants.

All reservations – more than 550 – were snapped up quickly in April by members of Taco Bell’s ‘Fire Tier’ rewards program, the brand’s most loyal customers, who got the first dibs, according to a spokesperson. of the society.

Robert Fisher, lead production designer at Taco Bell, said the drag brunch idea surfaced a year ago at Live Más Pride, Taco Bell’s LGBTQ employee resource group, and was forwarded to the company’s managing director, Mark King, who had enlightened her.

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

The company signed Oscar Quintero, who performs as 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 were careful to keep their language and material fairly clean and apolitical.

“I have a ton of people on social media who are from all political and religious backgrounds, and yet they find it in their hearts to appreciate my work,” Quintero said. “When people start doing politics, I just say, ‘Let me be an escape.’ ”

Drag’s relationship with the restaurant business dates back to the mid-20th century, when drag revues in bars and restaurants catered to a predominantly straight audience. Mr. Jeffreys, the historian, believes 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 been hosting a drag brunch since 1991, and it remains popular.

Today, drag brunch is a staple of the weekend in many cities, a draw for bachelorette parties and birthday parties. Food and cruising continue to intersect in new ways, from meal delivery services to sausage-making parties.

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

But others believe that the ship has sailed for a long time. Slide is now squarely in the mainstream, said Harry James Hanson, co-author of “Legends of Drag,” a new book featuring photographic portraits of former drag performers.

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

Maybe that’s what’s happening at Taco Bell. After all, the company is introducing drag to an audience that might not otherwise go to a drag show if it weren’t for Taco Bell’s invitation.

Blake Hundley, a 25-year-old straight dad, said he drove three hours from his home in Dubuque, Iowa, to be on the front lines for the second of two Chicago shows — no surprise, given that he runs a Taco Bell fan site, LivingMas.com, and eats at Taco Bell three times a week “at a minimum”.

After the show, Mr Hundley said his first drag brunch was awesome and he would come back if the fast food chain threw another one. “My life revolves around Taco Bell,” he said.

While not everyone is so thrilled with its shows, the company is okay with that. The drag brunch “is not about politics or fear of backlash,” said Sean Tresvant, global brand manager for Taco Bell. “It’s about being authentic.”

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