What The First Taco John's Was Really Like

Two decades into the 21st century, fast-food Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants are deeply ingrained in American culture. Now, thanks to the May 2023 legal dispute between international fast food conglomerate Taco Bell and the small-by-comparison Taco John's chain over the latter's legal trademark of Taco Tuesday. The entire nation knows about West-Mex-style fast food, as well.

With close to 400 open locations across 23 U.S. states as of 2023, it's not as if Taco John's has been toiling in the shadows since it first opened in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1969, but in light of its decades-spanning existence, the recent conversation around the chain's Taco Tuesday infamy has made us just as curious about its past as its present — namely, what was Taco John's like for folks who patronized the original location more than 50 years ago?

Certain aspects of founder John Turner's original restaurant appear to have remained consistent over time, but there's no denying the West-Mex fast food chain has evolved. If you're wondering what those first customers experienced when ordering from the once-humble taco stand — and how it might differ from today — grab your tortillas as we reveal what the first Taco John's was like.

The original restaurant was actually a taco stand

There's no doubt a trip to the first Taco John's would've been quite startling to anyone familiar with its modern-day layout. However, it's not just the absence of benches adorned with cartoon tacos that differentiates the original location from its 21st-century counterparts. Before James Woodson and Harold Holmes purchased the franchising rights to Taco John's from its founder in 1969, the restaurant wasn't a walk-in dining establishment but rather a walk-up taco stand.

While the seemingly inauspicious and somewhat ragtag nature of the original Taco John's may have bothered some aspiring entrepreneurs, founder John Turner (hence the name) likely didn't mind. After all, the Air Force veteran, who managed a nearby McDonald's before opening his destiny-making taco stand, was deliberately modest in the conception and design of his restaurant.

We're sure the sheer setup of the first Taco John's (which wasn't yet called Taco John's, as we'll soon address) would surprise 21st-century diners. Nevertheless, considering the food served is prepared using the same recipes and flavors that made Taco John's famous, you might still recognize the underlying brand created by Turner all those years ago.

The first Taco John's wasn't a traditional restaurant

Even before the 2010 debut of "The Great American Food Truck Race" signaled the mobile restaurant concept's mainstream acceptance, food trucks have been all the rage in the U.S. In that sense, perhaps John Turner possessed a borderline prescience in opening the first Taco John's. After all, his taco stand wasn't some shack built from the ground up; It was a modified camper he'd purchased from a local car dealer.

As Taco John's CEO, Jim Creel, told KGAB-650 in 2019, future Taco John's franchise rights co-owner James Woodson "connected (Turner) with Harold Holmes" (Woodson's eventual franchising rights' co-owner), who "within a week ... built a 12-by-30 trailer to serve tacos" outside the 1968 Cheyenne Frontiers Days Festival. Unsurprisingly, both Woodson and Holmes recognized the brand's opportunities for further growth, leading the duo to purchase the franchise rights in 1969 (eventually leaving the chain's original camper-based taco stand a relic of history).

It's unlikely anyone would describe the original Taco John's taco stand as an honest-to-goodness food truck, but given the actual underlying foundation on which it was built, we feel it merits an adjacent inclusion in that category — just as Turner, Woodson, and Holmes deserve credit for their ingenuity.

The original Taco John's didn't have a permanent location

When we previously described the original Taco John's location as something of a spiritual cousin to food trucks, we may have been more on point than we initially realized. After all, while the first Taco John's is generally described as a taco stand, in reality, the restaurant was little more than a camper refurbished for food service. It may be more accurate to say the first Taco John's was a temporarily installed trailer that lacked a permanent long-term location.

While some other well-regarded, long-running fast food chains transformed their original locations into tourist attractions (such as Kentucky Fried Chicken), the first Taco John's location only lives on in memories and photographs. Considering Taco John's didn't open its first location in an actual free-standing building until the mid-1970s, it's really not that surprising the original taco stand-cum-trailer didn't survive the long haul.

It wasn't originally known as Taco John's

It's fairly routine for a company to change its name at some point. Regardless of the underlying rationale, nothing is more common in the corporate world than a company choosing to rebrand (and rename) itself. Whether or not James Woodson and Harold Holmes always planned on changing the name of John Turner's taco stand upon purchasing the franchise rights in 1969, we can't say, but we can definitively tell you the first Taco John's wasn't called "Taco John's." It was known as the Taco House.

We're not particularly interested in debating which name is better, so we'll refrain from picking a favorite. Still, even if Turner himself was deeply committed to his taco stand's original name, we can't imagine he was too upset to hear the franchise would be renamed. At least not after discovering the change was made in his honor (he's the "John" in Taco John's).

There's nothing inherently wrong with the Taco House name, but considering where the Taco John's name took Woodson and Holmes, it's tough to dispute the duo's decision.

VIP behind the counter

For the uninformed, the name Taco John's may seem downright puzzling. While someone who's never encountered one of its hundreds of locations may wonder who exactly John is, the chain isn't shy that John represents the restaurant's founder, John Turner. And that leads to the intriguing fact that Taco John himself might have served you at the first Taco John's.

If we were to nitpick, technically speaking, Turner never served anyone at the first Taco John's — but only because it wasn't yet called Taco John's. Other than that (and the alternative ambiance it offered as a refurbished trailer instead of a brick-and-mortar restaurant), it's easy to imagine that modern fans of the West-Mex establishment would be tickled pink by the relative familiarity of the eponymous John's offerings.

After all, Turner developed the culinary blueprint followed by subsequent Taco John's locations. In other words, you might not have had the pleasure of being served by the actual John at the chain's first location, but you can still taste his legacy in every Taco John's order.

The menu looked fairly different than what modern diners experience

Taco John's made a name for itself by offering customers several truly innovative and memorable Mexican fast food items. While the chain's menu as of 2023 is chock full of culinary delights, the first Taco John's didn't feature the same robust selection available to modern customers. If you patronized its first location, you'd have noticed the menu looked rather different when the original restaurant opened.

We're not entirely sure what specific items were available at the first Taco John's, but it's unlikely the chain's original location offered more than a handful of tacos or burritos. As Taco John's CEO Jim Creel told KGAB-650 in 2019, the first location's menu was "a little bit more limited" compared to today's offerings.

It seems you could still enjoy the same bold, delectable flavors you'd expect from Taco John's at its original location. You just wouldn't have been able to enjoy everything you've come to love, like its famed Potato Oles, which weren't introduced until 1979.

Your fellow diners were likely attendees of the Cheyenne Frontier Days event

We like to pride ourselves on being hip to what's happening around the U.S., but staying apprised of everything simply isn't possible. While many of us may have never heard of the Cheyenne Frontiers Days, it's a Wyoming tradition dating back to 1897. With that in mind, it's no mystery why Taco John's founder, John Turner, chose the eve of the 1968 festival to launch his taco stand from a customized trailer — or why you'd likely have dined with that year's festival-goers if you patronized the first Taco John's.

The hardly coincidental timing of the then-named Taco House's opening not only indicates who your fellow customers might have been, but it also demonstrates, in part, the rationale for eventual franchise rights' co-owners James Woodson and Harold Holmes' collaborative efforts with Turner. After all, the two men were quick to assist Turner with launching his taco stand in time for Frontier Days, just as they wasted no time obtaining the franchise rights the following year.

The original recipes were developed by founder John Turner

The menu at the first Taco John's didn't consist of a haphazard collection of purportedly authentic Mexican foods. The recipes founder John Turner used weren't thrown together on the fly. They resulted from a meticulous process. Unsurprisingly, before approaching James Woodson and Harold Holmes to assist him with building the first Taco John's, Turner tinkered with ingredients in his basement, eventually leading to his signature blend of flavors and spices. You'd almost certainly have eaten food prepared with the founder's recipes at the first Taco John's.

It may be obvious that anyone dining at the first Taco John's would have enjoyed an entrée prepared from Turner's recipe, but what's interesting is that you can still enjoy the delightful combination of bold, spicy flavors originally concocted by Turner in modern-day locations.

There's no denying the exceptional nature of the recipes imagined by Turner. While you may not have the opportunity to eat a taco prepared with the founder's hands, you can still enjoy the flavors he imagined all those years ago.

It was one of the only fast food Mexican restaurants operating in Wyoming

As we noted during the introduction, Mexican and Mexican-adjacent fast-food restaurant chains are a dime a dozen. Of course, like anything else that's become ubiquitous in the modern world, there was a time when Mexican restaurants weren't nearly as prevalent. If you visited the first Taco John's restaurant in Cheyenne, Wyoming, you'd have been hard-pressed to find many other local Mexican fast-food chains.

Considering the trajectory of fast food (Mexican or otherwise) in the U.S., it's not necessarily shocking to learn there were very few such establishments in and around the Wyoming state capital in the 1960s. After all, the state was the least-populated in the nation in 1970 and remains so in 2023, indicating many companies likely avoided opening multiple (or any) locations in an area so sparsely populated.

Maybe this explains how and why the first Taco John's took the state's capital by storm. In hindsight, it seems Cheyenne residents were waiting for a restaurant to fill the Mexican food-shaped hole in their hearts.

The first Taco John's was always intended to become an affordable franchise

At times, the notion of a philanthropic business person seems like a myth. Perhaps that's simply an inevitability of capitalism, but it's still frustrating to witness an individual more concerned with their wealth than the greater good. In that regard, we have to commend Taco John's founder, John Turner, for the humility he displayed upon opening the original location. However, the decidedly unsophisticated and inexpensive design of his restaurant wasn't a bug; It was a feature — one always intended to become an affordable-yet-profitable franchising opportunity.

It's no secret that starting a business is a literal crapshoot in the U.S., particularly when it comes to restaurants. With that in mind, Turner hoped his Taco House taco stand would provide similar opportunities to aspiring small business owners who dreamed of opening a successful Mexican fast-food restaurant.

It seems Turner truly was a kind-hearted person who aimed to help others prosper. As Fran Smyth of Habitat for Humanity told Casper Star Tribune upon Turner's death in 2004, the Taco John's founder "believed that everyone has a moral responsibility to do all they can for everyone ... (and) he lived that."