It was Tuesday. I was hungry. So I went out to enjoy a dinner that millions of Americans have gobbled up on that day for decades.
I stopped by Chapter One: The Modern Bistro, a restaurant in downtown Santa Ana I have haunted almost from the moment it opened 12 years ago. My wife and I love the place for its hearty food, its stiff drinks and especially owner Jeff Jensen, a native santanero who always greets us with a smile and the latest gossip.
More often than not, we stop by on Taco Tuesday.
Chapter One has held the promotion for at least a decade, and we love all the specials: ground shrimp taquitos we dunk in a thick cilantro lime salsa. Potato and chorizo tacos topped with slaw and served on a slightly crisped handmade corn tortilla. On the Tuesday I visited, I ordered the ribeye tacos, which Jensen had just added and which were spectacular.
He has known that Tuesdays are for tacos throughout his 20-some years in the restaurant industry — even at the Irish pub in Newport Beach he managed before opening Chapter One.
“We would do corned beef tacos over there,” he said. “They were good.”
I wasn’t surprised by his incredulous look when I asked if he knew that “Taco Tuesday” is copyrighted and that any restaurant using the term as a promotion is technically breaking the law.
“Uh, doesn’t everyone use it?” he asked as a happy hour rush filled tables and booths and bar. He tried to gather his thoughts — it was as if I had said the sun is actually the moon.
“Man, people will copyright anything, won’t they?” he continued. “What’s next — Wine Wednesday? Sunday Funday? Margarita Monday?”
(The first one isn’t copyrighted; the latter two are).
Since 1989, the Wyoming-based fast-food chain Taco John’s has held the “Taco Tuesday” copyright in every U.S. state except New Jersey, where Gregory’s Restaurant and Bar in Somers Point won exclusive use in 1982. Taco John’s has vigorously defended its rights, to the point of sending cease-and-desist letters to restaurants that use “Taco Tuesday” to promote, well, tacos on Tuesday.
The company, with nearly 400 restaurants mostly located in Mexican culinary hellscapes like Montana and North Dakota, has long ignored calls by taco scholars like myself to let the copyright enter the public domain. It argues that it was the first restaurant to use “Taco Tuesday,” that the name is an integral part of its identity, and that other restaurants will confuse consumers into thinking that Taco John’s is associated with them.
When I asked Jensen if a customer had ever complained that Chapter One’s Taco Tuesday promotion messed with Taco John’s business, he laughed.
“The first time I ever heard of Taco John’s,” Jensen deadpanned, “is sitting here talking to you.”
Taco John’s has swatted away six previous attempts to cancel its trademark. That doesn’t include a 2019 effort by Lakers star LeBron James to also trademark “Taco Tuesday,” which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected, asserting that the phrase is “a commonplace term … that merely conveys an ordinary, familiar, well-recognized concept or sentiment.”
Now comes a new run at Taco John’s by none other than Taco Bell, filed on — when else? — Taco Tuesday.
The Irvine-based giant vowed in a press release not to claim the phrase as its own if it succeeds in having the copyright canceled, proclaiming, “The very essence of ‘Taco Tuesday’ is to celebrate the commonality amongst people of all walks of life who come together every week to celebrate something as simple, yet culturally phenomenal, as the taco.”
Taco John’s didn’t blink.
“When a big, bad bully threatens to take away the mark our forefathers originated so many decades ago,” Taco John’s Chief Executive Jim Creel thundered in his press release, “well, that just rings hollow to us.”
I’m no fan of Taco Bell — the food is too salty, and Del Taco is way better — but I’m rooting for it. Sometimes, the big man on campus has to smack down the snot-nosed upstart. (Just ask the Dodgers and the Padres.)
Not only has Taco John’s needlessly harassed too many mom-and-pop restaurants with silly cease-and-desist letters, but the chain — whose only real innovation with Mexican food is putting tater tots inside breakfast burritos — has continuously changed the very “Taco Tuesday” origin story Creel brags about. As I documented in a 2018 article for Thrillist, executives have alternately claimed that Taco John’s “Taco Tuesday” started in 1982, 1983 or 1979, that the first location to use it was in Minnesota, and that the promotion first went by “Taco Twosday.”
But by the mid-1970s, dozens of restaurants across the United States had already adopted “Taco Tuesday” — for instance, the underrated Inland Empire chain Baker’s Drive-Thru began its campaign in 1976. Before that, restaurants have advertised Tuesday taco specials as far back as the 1930s.
The truth has never mattered to Taco John’s. Its leaders know the history of Mexican food in the United States is littered with creation myths — the margarita, Doritos, Korean tacos — that people retell because they want to believe them. My colleague Sam Dean wrote about former Frito-Lay executive Richard Montañez telling anyone who would listen that he thought up Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, even though there’s ample evidence he didn’t. That didn’t stop Eva Longoria from directing a film about Montañez’s life, scheduled for a June release, that passes off his story as the truth.
A Wyoming-based company creating “Taco Tuesday” would be a great yarn, if it were true. It would speak to how Mexican cuisine appeals to all Americans, inspiring even Midwesterners to coin memorable couplets hailing its powers. The danger when people like Montañez and companies like Taco John’s double-down on their fast-food fables, however, is that truth is degraded in an era where it’s more precarious than ever.
To act like Taco John’s and tell a self-serving tale, double-down when someone proves it false, then blast naysayers as haters is downright Trumpian — and who needs Donald Trump with their tacos? Especially on a Tuesday?
“It was pretty smart that [Taco John’s] got their hands on” the copyright, Jensen admitted. “But what have they done with it? If they’re just using it to send cease-and-desist letters, what a waste. If Taco Bell is challenging to stop this from happening, I’m going to side with Taco Bell.”
His family had joined us. He told his wife about the copyright. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “Everyone uses it!”
Jensen then looked at his 2-year-old daughter. “Guess what day it is today? Taco Tuuuuuues-day!”