Todd Mills tastes for the first time a Doritos Locos Taco in the Taco Bell test kitchen.(Photo: Tacos Made from Doritos Movement Facebook page)
(USA TODAY) - The visionary behind the billion-dollar Doritos Locos Tacos idea never made any money on it.
Instead, Todd Mills shrugged off any attention, simply wanting his "cool idea" to come true, said Mills' wife, Ginger.
Mills, 41, died on Thanksgiving after battling brain cancer at St. Vincent's in Little Rock. He's survived by daughters, Tyler, 19, and Lainey, 6.
When friends learned he had passed away, they took pictures of themselves eating the tacos and posted the images to Facebook, Ginger Mills said.
"It was a sweet memorial," she said.
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 photoshopped images of well known figures including Albert Einstein with a cheesy taco shell in a thought bubble, Steve Jobs holding a Macbook with a cheesy taco shell on the screen and Chuck Norris doing a karate kick while holding a cheesy taco shell. The page has more than 4,200 likes.
"He was a master with Photoshop, and he created this movement," Looney said.
One day, Todd noticed Taco Bell had commented on one of his images.
"He was really excited," Ginger Mills said. "Taco Bell was paying attention to him. Of course, we called everyone we knew."
In 2012, Todd Mills received a phone call from Taco Bell. The company was developing the prized creation - calling it the Doritos Locos Tacos - and wanted to fly Todd out to its test kitchen in California. He was among the first people to try the new product.
In an e-mailed statement, Taco Bell called Mills a "true friend" of the company. "We are honored to have had his support through the Doritos for Taco Shells Movement on Facebook, and we admire his strength and optimism during his recent battle. Our thoughts and sympathies are with Todd's family during this time," according to Taco Bell's statement.
The experimental combination has paid off for Taco Bell. This year, the company said it exceeded $1 billion in sales of the Doritos Locos Tacos, according to The Huffington Post.
It's unclear how much influence Mills had on Taco Bell's launch of the Locos Tacos. Although friends, including Looney, had urged Mills to seek compensation for the idea he championed, Todd did not pursue it.
"Todd being Todd, he never asked for anything," Looney said. "He said, 'I just want my tacos.'"
Cancer forced Mills to stop working in August as the vice president of media and information technology at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, Looney said.
As he went through two brain surgeries and a lung surgery, Looney set up a website to accept donations to help pay for Mills' medical bills. Mills would never set up such a site himself, Looney said. Looney reached out to Taco Bell's CEO on Twitter, and the company donated $1,000, Looney said.
Looney described Mills as "a guy with a good idea and a good heart." Mills' funeral was held Dec. 2. Afterward, Looney said, friends went to Taco Bell and had Doritos Locos Tacos in his honor.