Taco John’s, a “West-Mex” fast-food chain, is six years younger and smaller than its main competitor, Taco Bell, but see how this franchise became more popular than expected by taking over Small Town USA.
1. THE FAMED FAST-FOOD WEST-MEX COMES FROM WYOMING.
That’s right: while there’s southwest inspiration for this fast-food chain, the first Taco John’s was founded in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1968. John Turner, a Korean War veteran and serial entrepreneur, created the chain with the hopes of a taco franchise. Turner was raised on a Texas cotton farm, and later joined the U.S. Air Force, where he was stationed in Cheyenne. After being honorably discharged in 1951, 21-year-old Turner stayed in Wyoming and took up work as a McDonald’s manager. The fast-food experience inspired him to create his own chain of restaurants.
2. THE FIRST TACO JOHN'S OPERATED OUT OF A CAMPER.
The first Taco John’s restaurant popped up, seemingly overnight, nearly two decades after Turner's initial idea. The restaurateur had the idea to sell tacos and burritos to crowds at the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, which in April of 1968, was only a week away. To make his venture into food service possible, Turner realized he’d need to move quickly to set up a food stand. Real estate agent James Woodson helped John find a location, but there was one problem: no building. Harold Holmes, a camper manufacturer and friend of Woodson, converted a camper into the first Cheyenne taco stand. In under a week, John Turner’s dreams were being served up under the name Taco House, from a 360-square foot red building with yellow stripes—which Woodson called “quite gaudy.”
3. FRANCHISING WAS THE GOAL ALL ALONG.
Turner’s initial franchise idea was to create an accessible franchise that "mom and pop" restaurateurs could manage to improve their financial situations. Within a year of opening Taco House, Woodson and Holmes approached Turner as business partners looking to franchise the Taco House idea. While the name changed to Taco John’s (honoring John Turner and his idea), many of the menu items and recipes stayed true to their Taco House origins.
4. MANY OF THE FIRST TACO JOHN'S FRANCHISEES ONLY HAD HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMAS.
Woodson and Holmes jump-started the Taco John’s chain, which quickly spread throughout the Midwest. As demand for restaurants grew, many new franchisees skipped college and opted to run a Taco John’s restaurant instead. Holmes’ daughter, Carolyn O’Connor, said it was common to have high school grads running locations. “There are many millionaires in the company who built their business one unit at a time and didn’t go to college—they did this instead,” she said.
5. A LOT OF TACO JOHN'S LOCATIONS ARE OLD GAS STATIONS.
Woodson and Holmes knew that expanding in small markets with fewer competitors would set their business up for success. Instead of targeting large cities, the management duo set up restaurants in rural areas with few or no other Mexican restaurants. During the 1970s, full-service gas stations were closing down in large numbers, giving Taco John’s a cost-effective way to buy property. Holmes used his piloting skills to survey the best, high-traffic areas to set up new franchises.
6. JOHN TURNER WENT ON TO MANUFACTURE TORTILLAS.
Turner held onto the Taco John’s recipes, menu and trademark for nearly 20 years before selling it to Woodson and Holmes. But he didn’t walk away from Taco John’s altogether. After 1985, Turner created his own line of chips and salsa. The tortillas he produced were used in Taco John’s restaurants.
7. POTATO OLéS HAVE BEEN AROUND SINCE THE '70S.
Potato Olés—deep-fried potatoes that resemble round, flattened tater tots—have become one of Taco John’s signature foods, but they didn’t appear on the chain’s menu until 1979. Potato Olés appear in more ways than just the most familiar one (in a bucket with a side of cheese or sour cream)—they’re often the potato filling for burritos and tacos. And, if that’s not enough fried potato, you can buy Potato Olés by the pound with the chain's popular "Six-Pack and Pound" deal (which consists of six tacos and a pound of taters). Or, make them at home.
8. A HIGH SCHOOL KID MAY HAVE DREAMED UP YOUR BURRITO.
Taco John’s hosts its annual Culinary Cup competition, where Wyoming high school chefs win scholarships with potential menu items. Six finalist recipes are chosen, and students move on to cook their meal for a panel of judges. Winning recipes, like breakfast churro sandwiches and French toast burritos, land on the chain’s menu as limited-time options.
9. TACO JOHN'S HAS HAD SOME UNEXPECTED MENU ITEMS.
Watch out Taco Bell—Taco John’s takes cues from that unnecessary taco product playbook, too. In 2014, the restaurant unveiled the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Burrito, filled with nacho cheese, spicy chorizo, jalapenos and its namesake spicy corn snack. Some foodies gave it the thumbs up, while others said it’s only good for a "teenage boy on a dare." This year, Taco John’s unveiled its popular Oreo Churro, which the company says has increased dessert sales by 69 percent, and which comes with dipping crème instead of milk.
10. IN SOME SPOTS, YOU CAN GET TACOS AND CUSTARD AT THE SAME TIME.
And just like those Taco Bell-KFC mash-up restaurants, Taco John’s has explored two-option eateries at some locations. Instead of chicken, it has considered burger and custard joint Good Times as a business partner. In 2004, several Taco John’s locations were remodeled to make room for burrito stations and custard machines.
11. THINK TWICE BEFORE CALLING IT TACO TUESDAY.
That’s because Taco John’s has owned the trademark to "Taco Tuesday" since 1989. On occasion, Taco John’s corporate lawyers send out cease and desist letters to restaurants unknowingly using the trademark. Being unable to use the name in marketing pushes some restaurants to get witty (and a bit snarky—"Trademark Tyrant Taco Day"?). A Madison, Wisc., restaurant held a competition to rename their taco promotion after getting a letter, and said it would copyright the new name "just as a joke."
12. TACO JOHN'S HAD A FINICKY SPOKES-MONKEY.
Like a dog-riding monkey named Whiplash. The tiny, primate rodeo wrangler was part of an early 2000s series of TV spots, wearing a sombrero and delivering burritos to the unsuspecting and hungry (who respond with the appropriate “Hey, thanks little monkey dude!”). As for working with Whiplash, he wasn’t always on his best behavior. Chris Preston, the creative director for the ads, said there were rules to working with Whiplash: “No eye contact, or he’s likely to, well, lash out. On the first day of the first ever Whiplash shoot, the boy playing the Taco John’s employee took three claws to the cheek.”
13. TACO JOHN'S HAS THE CATCHIEST HOLIDAY COMMERCIALS EVER.
Ask anyone who lives in the Taco John's advertising zone if they can sing the holiday ad song. Anyone. The rendition of "Feliz Navidad," a 1970 hit by the Grammy-winning, Puerto Rican-born singer-songwriter José Feliciano, is actually sung by Feliciano himself (who wishes everyone "a Merry Christmas from the bottom of [his] heart—and from Taco John's"). Since 1997, the chain has sold Christmas-colored "Nachos Navidad" and donated part of the proceeds to various charities.