At Taco Bell, the Drag Brunch Goes Corporate

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CHICAGO — As drag brunch came to a close at a Mexican restaurant here last Sunday, the performers conga-lined their way through the crowd of about 40 party people who were just this side of tipsy on Brunch Punch.

But this was no standard drag brunch; it was a Taco Bell Drag Brunch. And that wasn’t a microphone in the lead queen’s hand; it was a Grande Toasted Breakfast Burrito. That queen — a Mexican American performer called Kay Sedia (pronounced quesadilla) — was the M.C. at a Taco Bell Cantina down the block from Wrigley Field, wearing a frilly, skintight frock with the Taco Bell logo on the belly.

In the 45-minute show, Kay Sedia sassed the crowd (mostly young, mostly white) and danced with her fellow performers: the drag 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 diners’ tables, a shimmering box held a burrito (sausage, bacon or veggie), a hash brown and Cinnabon Delights doughnut holes. The sound of Taco Bell’s signature “bong” punctuated a drinking game.

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

“I’m at a loss for words,” she said.

There may be gayer 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 has arrived in time for June’s Pride celebrations, is arguably the most mainstream marriage of drag and dining yet — a “phenomenal” step in the evolution of drag culture, said Joe E. Jeffreys, a drag historian.

“It’s taken drag over a border that it hasn’t been before, to an exciting new place of accessibility,” said Mr. Jeffreys, who teaches theater studies at N.Y.U. and the New School. (He had not been to one of the chain’s brunches.)

Taco Bell Drag Brunch is just the latest effort by corporate fast-food chains to grab the attention of L.G.B.T.Q. consumers. Last year, Taco Bell named the out rapper Lil Nas X as its “chief impact officer,” 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 L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy group.

The political landscape may be changing, though. The creation of “drag queen story hours” for children at public libraries across the country has stirred protests and some cancellations. In April, Gov. 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 forbid discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida public schools.

The moment is challenging corporations to decide how best to support a brand-loyal group of consumers without alienating conservative customers or legislators. (Taco Bell is taking its drag brunch to Florida, but is not among several companies that have voiced 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 percentages of their proceeds during June to L.G.B.T.Q. organizations, and the Taco Bell Foundation is giving a grant to the It Gets Better Project to expand work-force-readiness resources for L.G.B.T.Q. youth.

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

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

When Taco Bell posted a photo from the Las Vegas brunch on Instagram, it generated some 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, Fla., on June 26. The events, which are free and limited to customers ages 18 and older, are being held at Taco Bell Cantina locations because they serve alcohol, unlike other Taco Bell restaurants.

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

Robert Fisher, a senior production designer at Taco Bell, said the drag brunch idea surfaced a year ago within Live Más Pride, Taco Bell’s L.G.B.T.Q. employee resource group, and made its way to the company’s chief executive, Mark King, who greenlit it.

Mr. 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 L.G.B.T. Q. community, “not as if Taco Bell was appropriating drag for the sake of tacos.”

The company signed Oscar Quintero, who performs under 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 taken care to keep their language and material fairly clean and nonpolitical.

“I have a ton 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,” Mr. Quintero said. “When people start to get political, I just say: ‘Allow me to be an escape.’ ”

Drag’s relationship with dining goes back to the mid-20th century, when drag revues in bars and restaurants catered to predominantly straight audiences. Mr. Jeffreys, the historian, 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, D.C., 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 and birthday parties. Food and drag continue to intersect in new ways, from meal-delivery services to sausage-making parties.

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

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

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

Perhaps that’s what is happening at Taco Bell. After all, the company is introducing drag to audiences who might not otherwise go to a drag show if the invitation weren’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 Chicago shows — no surprise, considering 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 that his first drag brunch was a blast, and that he’d return if the fast-food chain hosted another. “My life is about Taco Bell,” he said.

If not everyone is as thrilled about its shows, the company is fine with that. Drag brunch “is not 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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