Engineering the Doritos Locos Taco: How a Texas ChE Grad Changed Tacos Forever

Alumnus Max Petrie in front of the McKetta Department for Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas.What may have once seemed like an unassuming item on a fast food chain’s menu, has now disrupted the fast food industry and possibly tacos as we know it forever. In 2012, Taco Bell launched Doritos Locos Tacos (DLT). In the first 10 weeks after the product’s launch, there were over 100 million DLTs sold. That’s one DLT for every three people in the US and enough to feed the entire population of Hong Kong for a day and still have leftovers. It took McDonald’s 18 years to sell 100 million hamburgers. In less than three years since launch, there were 1 billion DLTs sold. Now that’s a lot of tacos!

The Atlantic called the Doritos Locos Taco “a miracle of modern engineering” and it’s not hard to see why. Max Petrie, PepsiCo employee and Texas ChE graduate, is one of the Frito-Lay masterminds behind the taco. (Frito-Lay, Inc. is an American subsidiary of PepsiCo). Petrie recently gave us an inside look at how the DLT took shape and stormed the fast food market.


Three Taco Bell Doritos Locos tacos

It Began with the Shell

The team began engineering the Doritos Locos Taco shell back in late 2009, but it took over two years of development before the product was ready for sale in Taco Bell’s stores. The plan began with the taco shell. They engineered the shell from scratch in their pilot plant using real corn and raw materials. Various types of masa were experimented with to emulate the ideal Doritos texture and quality that consumers expected.

Prototype of a taco shell

Shape Matters

Frito-Lay wanted the crunch of a Doritos chip to deliver a true Doritos experience. To accomplish this, Max and team developed and tested more than 50 prototypes. In fact, the first few prototypes were triangular to emulate an actual Doritos chip. After testing, the team eventually went with a classic rounded taco shape, as they could fit more of the tasty taco fillings inside without spilling out of the shell.

Prototype of the original Doritos flavored Taco Bell shell


Inside the Taco War Room

It wasn’t just the shape of the shell or what it was made out of. Doritos are notorious for their flavorful seasoned exterior, and one of the greatest challenges the team faced was replicating the classic Doritos color and flavor delivery. Max’s team tried several approaches to conduct proof-of-principle testing to replicate the iconic Doritos coating in a taco shell process. They even tried using a paint roller from Home Depot to test an idea. “Working in the plant and testing out creative solutions on the coating were some of the most fun days,” says Max. The team had to be sure that the coating also maintained its flavor throughout the baking and frying processes and tested various prototypes with target consumer test groups.

Three different formulations of a new taco shell Scientists Jose Nader and Max Petrie in front of a whiteboard with taco shell formulations


Done and Dusted

Once the team figured out the right method for replicating a consumer-approved flavoring on the shell, they had to address the next engineering hurdle, scalability and consistency. The team partnered with an external vendor to create a processing machine which would effectively coat the taco shells while being gentle enough to keep the shells from breaking in the process without wasting seasoning. “If the consumer receives a broken Dorito in their bag of chips, it still tastes great. A broken taco shell is a bigger problem because it has lost its functionality,” says Max.  The result is a one-of-a-kind process that ensures consistent results and creates perfect Doritos taco shells every time.

Taco seasoning in a machine for recapture at a food manufacturing plant.


Signed, Sealed, Doritos

The next challenge the team faced was transporting the shells intact from the factory to Taco Bell locations across the nation. To prepare for the test market launch, the team created a small scale prototype system to create more than 1 million seasoned taco shells.  All those shells were fed by hand, over many days. Max’s team also re-engineered the shipping boxes to ensure that the taco shells were transported as safely as possible without breaking or cracking. The team sent test boxes to the farthest possible points and traveled across the country with the packages to track breakage along the way. At each stop, the team assessed where more protective shipping materials were needed inside the boxes, all to ensure a perfectly in-tact Taco.​

Food manufacturer hand feeds taco shells into small scale prototype system. PepsiCo Frito-Lay executive and researcher enjoy new Taco Bell product.

The road from Frito-Lay’s Flavor Kitchen to your local Taco Bell was a long one, but based on sales it looks like the DLT is here to stay. The innovative taco created 15,000 jobs at launch and has become one of the best-selling menu items for Taco Bell. Since the introduction, Frito-Lay and Taco Bell have unveiled Nacho Cheese, Cool Ranch and Fiery flavors. The tacos have been such a hit with consumers that Frito-Lay also released a limited-edition Doritos chip that was Doritos Locos Tacos flavored – taco-bout a success!

Researcher Max Petrie with Taco Bell hot sauce.

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