The untold truth of Taco John's

If you don't live in an area with a Taco John's, you likely don't know what you're missing out on. It has hundreds of locations around the U.S., with most of them concentrated in the Midwest. The Mexican-inspired chain has been serving up tacos and other delicious delights since before the moon landing, getting its start just a few years after one of its biggest competitors, Taco Bell.

If you have yet to sample the scrumptious dishes Taco John's has on offer, you might want to search for one the next time you're in one of the 23 states that are lucky enough to have one of these franchises. Whether or not you're familiar with the chain, it's likely that you're unfamiliar with its history. This fast food restaurant has had quite the wild ride that will fascinate fans and novices alike. Keep reading for everything you never knew about Taco John's.

It started off as a humble food truck

Taco John's started off as the dream of John Turner. He opened up the first ever location in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1968. That first location was quite small, to say the least. Wanting to cater to the large crowd of tourists who turned out for the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, Turner contacted real estate broker James Woodson to help him find a restaurant building. Woodson's business partner, Harold Holmes, was a manufacturer of campers and trailers. He turned one of his campers into a food truck of sorts for Turner, and a legend was born.

The tacos and burritos Turner served up to the tourists were considered "exotic" at the time, and customers couldn't get enough of his food. Once that first food truck proved to be a success, Turner decided to capitalize off of the momentum. He asked Holmes to build him another food truck and then another as the business continued to expand, and the rest is history.

It wasn't always called Taco John's

The food truck that Turner sold his now-legendary Mexican-inspired food out of was the start of the franchise we now know and love as Taco John's, but Turner gave his business a different name. The business was originally started as Taco House. Recognizing that Turner had launched a successful brand, Harold Holmes, the man who built Turner's first food truck, bought the franchise rights to Taco House along with his business partner, James Woodson (the real estate broker who connected Turner and Holmes). They re-named the business Taco John's in order to pay homage to Turner's contribution to the venture.

When growing the business, Woodson and Holmes first focused on smaller towns. Some of the earliest Taco John's were started in Rapid City, South Dakota; Scottsbluff, Nebraska; and Torrington, Wyoming. The business continued to expand throughout the Northern Rockies and Upper Midwest. For a few years, Taco John's was so successful that Holmes was building a store every week.

Taco Tuesday is their trademark

You've probably heard of Taco Tuesday. It is, after all, one of — if not the — best days of the week. If you see any restaurant other than Taco John's advertising a Taco Tuesday special, however, you might want to warn them that they're violating Taco John's trademark. The chain claims to have invented Taco Tuesday, but the history is a little more complicated than that. While they did register the Taco Tuesday trademark in 1989, references to taco specials on Tuesdays go back to at least 1933. The first documented use of the phrase itself was in 1973, in an advertisement for a South Dakota restaurant.

It probably isn't possible to determine the first person to utter the words "taco Tuesday," but Taco John's trademark means that no one else can legally use the phrase. They regularly send out cease and desist letters to restaurants violating the trademark. "It's just unfathomable to us not to protect it," chief marketing officer Billie Jo Waara told Priceonomics.

Striving for authenticity

Traditionally, Taco John's has served up a fusion of American and Mexican food. While the dishes might have Spanish names, they haven't always been completely authentic. That has been changing in recent years, however, and re-branding efforts have focused on offering up more genuinely Mexican flavors. "The one thing we have absolutely decided when we're re-creating the menu is that we want much more authentic Mexican food served in a quick-service format," CEO Jeff Linville told QSR in 2016. "Last year, we came out with a line of street tacos. Our regular corn tacos and soft shells sell just fine, but when we really talk about our future guests, we're very, very focused on the Millennials and that [iGeneration]."

Taco John's is also changing up their ingredients in order to appeal to younger crowds, including swapping ground beef for shredded beef. "We're really upping the game in protein, bringing much cleaner labels and kind of dispelling some of the older things on our menu that no longer resonate with Millennials and iGens, like fried chicken wings," said Linville.

It's pretty unhealthy, even by fast food standards

No one really expects fast food to be healthy, but Taco John's has some pretty calorie-rich items on their menu. Even by fast food standards, the restaurant chain is quite unhealthy. The Travel ranked it as one of the most unhealthy fast food joints in the entire country. Their meals wouldn't be so bad if they weren't packed with cheese, which is a major source of saturated fats. Their Potato Olés scrambler with regular sausage has a whopping 1,190 calories — not exactly the healthiest start to your day.

If you want to eat healthy but still need your Taco John's fix, there are a few steps you can take to make the meals a bit healthier. Asking the restaurant to hold the cheese can lower your meal's fat content. Skipping the sour cream and substituting chicken for beef can also make your Taco John's indulgence a bit more heart healthy.

The founder once managed a McDonald's

Taco John's was not Turner's first foray into the business world. A rancher-turned-entrepreneur, Turner long cherished a dream of owning his own business. His goal was to create a franchised restaurant where an average couple could earn a good income.

The Texas native was stationed at Wyoming's  F.E. Warren Air Force Base. He ended up serving in the military for three years before being honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1952. Following his military service, Turner stayed in the area and entered the food industry where he worked at several restaurants, including McDonald's, where he worked as a manager. Before opening up his first taco truck, Turner also owned and operated the Drift-Inn, a drive-in where his wife also worked. All of his experience would provide him with the skills and inspiration that led to him founding the empire that would become known as Taco John's.

After selling the restaurant, the founder started a new company that played an important role in Taco John's growth

Turner stayed involved with Taco John's even after he sold the franchise rights to Holmes and Woodson. For years, he ran the company side by side with them, with Holmes and Woodson in charge of the franchises and Turner and his wife providing supplies used by the franchises through a corporation called Tortilla Mftg. & Supply Co., Inc. Turner and his wife also conducted Taco John's business through two more companies called Turner & Turner, and Taco John's Foods, Inc. They received payments for some of Turner's recipes that were still used at Taco John's.

In 1985, 17 years after Taco John's was founded, Turner sold the Taco John's trademark, distribution rights, and the recipes that had made the chain a success. While he was no longer officially part of the company, Turner was still involved with Taco John's. He launched a new business called El Bravito, which manufactured tortillas, chips, and salsa. Through El Bravito, Turner continued to supply Taco John's with tortillas.

The founder filed for bankruptcy

Sadly, Turner's business ventures didn't bring him success. In 1991, 23 years after he started the business that would become Taco John's, he and his wife, Bonnie Lou Turner, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. According to the court findings, the relationship between Turner and Woodson and Holmes was a rocky one. Turner filed a lawsuit against them in 1972, which further strained their relationship. While the Turner and Woodson-Holmes partnership would continue for more than a decade after that, Woodson and Holmes believed Turner was hampering the growth of the business, and their relationship continued to deteriorate.

In 1985, Turner was bought out of Taco John's for $3,525,000. While Taco John's continued to thrive, Turner struggled to stay afloat, and his ensuing hardships would eventually lead the Turners to file for bankruptcy. According to the court findings, both Turner and his wife lacked business acumen, which hindered Turner's entrepreneurial endeavors.

Many early franchises were started by newly-minted high school grads

Woodson and Holmes didn't just develop Taco John's into the major chain it is today, but also provided many young adults the opportunity to go into business for themselves. Many of the earliest Taco John's franchises were started by young entrepreneurs who were fresh out of high school. "There are many operators at the company who built their business one unit at a time and didn't go to college — they did this instead," said Carolyn O'Connor, Holmes' daughter and a shareholder of Taco John's International Inc., on the Taco John's franchise website. "My mom and dad treated each one of these young people as if they were part of our family. They were the early adopters, and my parents were intensely loyal to them. They are the foundation this company was built upon."

Many of those early franchise owners remain with Taco John's to this day, or have turned their franchises into family businesses and passed them on to their kids.

Some of their most popular dishes were dreamed up by high school kids

Taco John's has a long history of working with young people. Not only were many of their franchises started by new high school graduates, but high school students also help come up with the menu. Every year, Taco John's hosts the Taco John's Culinary Cup competition for high school students in Wyoming and Colorado. Winners not only get a small scholarship but also see their creations appear as limited items on the Taco John's menu. 

"They make items that they want to eat and they think their friends will like to eat," Bob Karisny, Vice President for Menu Strategy and Innovation said on the Taco John's website. "When you have dozens of competitors, you see patterns emerge in the ingredients they use and the types of foods they make. That helps us plan menu items that appeal to young diners and help our franchisees win their business."

Even Taco John's can't escape pumpkin spice mania

Everyone knows that pumpkin spice lattes are a Starbucks staple, but the pumpkin spice flavor craze isn't limited to just coffee. Mexican food and pumpkin spice might not be the most obvious association to make, but even Taco John's got in on the pumpkin spice action in 2017. Thankfully, they didn't add the flavor to their tacos, but instead added it to one of their desserts. The Taco John's Pumpkin Churro hit the menu in October 2017, and was a crème-stuffed  pumpkin purée churro rolled in pumpkin pie-spiced cinnamon and sugar. "It seems like pumpkins are everywhere this time of year, but we wanted to give our guests something truly creative—and craveably delicious," VP of marketing Tom Meyer said in a press release (via QSR).

Alas, the Pumpkin Churro was only offered in limited quantities, and no plans have been announced to bring it back, breaking the hearts of pumpkin lovers everywhere.

They were once sued by the ACLU

Taco John's may be a beloved institution but, like most companies, they have seen their share of troubles. One particularly grim incident in their history occurred in 2014 after they found themselves sued by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of a Taco John's employee, 16-year-old Tyler Brandt, who claimed that he was forced to wear a name tag that said "GAYTARD" at a Taco John's franchise in Yankton, South Dakota. Humiliated by the name tag, Brandt quit his job.

"We at Taco Johns are deeply concerned about the reported incident in Yankton, and we share the belief with Tyler that discrimination is wrong, wherever it takes place," wrote Taco John's on their Facebook page. "Please understand, however, that we do not control day to day operations of our franchisees, or their personnel decisions. We will do everything we can to minimize the possibility that incidents of the nature alleged do not occur anywhere in our franchise system."

They take National Taco Day very seriously

Taco Tuesday isn't the only taco tradition that Taco John's takes seriously. The company also makes a big deal out of National Taco Day with specials that have customers flocking to their doors. Not content with celebrating tacos on just one day, Taco John's commemorated National Taco Day in 2018 with five days of free tacos. To be specific, they gave away a free crispy beef taco to customers from Monday through Friday, turning National Taco Day into National Taco Week.

The only string attached was that customers wanting to take advantage of the deal had to have the chain's mobile app installed on their cell phones. Each day, the app would add a new free taco coupon to be redeemed. Their 2018 celebration of National Taco Day was a huge expansion over 2017, when Taco John's offered a coupon for a free taco to be redeemed only on National Taco Day

Some of their locations were paired with an ice cream chain

With all those calories you're sparing yourself by omitting the cheese from your meal, you can splurge and order some dessert with a guilt-free conscience. In the early 2000s, Taco John's started co-branding some of their locations in an effort to appeal to more customers. One chain they paired up with was Good Times Burgers & Custard in 2004, making it easy for customers to get some ice cream after polishing off their tacos. Taco John's entered a partnership with Steak Escape later that year as well. "We think that providing consumers with more choices under one roof will be very positive," said then-president and CEO Paul Fisherkeller in an announcement on the Taco John's website. "The new, dynamic look of our restaurants and the co-branding both help position Taco John's for continued growth."

More restaurant options might help Taco John's brand, but we have to wonder why anyone would want to eat anything other than a delicious dish from Taco John's. That may be why the chain's co-branding efforts appear to have fizzled out — no mention of the co-branded locations appears anywhere on the restaurant's site today.