The Taco John’s Story

Savvy entrepreneurs, huge rodeo helped put Taco John’s history as a Mexican restaurant franchise on the map

Taco John’s history is a fascinating one. In the summer of 1968, a young restauranteur named John Turner came to Cheyenne businessman James Woodson with a challenge. Turner needed a new restaurant building, and he needed it fast. The annual Cheyenne Frontier Days was just over a week away, and Turner wanted to cater to the tens of thousands of tourists who pack into Cheyenne for the rodeo.

Woodson, who owned a real estate brokerage, among several other ventures, had a property in mind for Turner — but no building. For that, they turned to Woodson’s friend and frequent business partner, Harold Holmes. Holmes owned a company that manufactured campers and travel trailers, and he used his ingenuity to turn one of his camper designs into a fully-functioning restaurant — essentially, a food truck.

When Cheyenne Frontier Days opened in 1968, so did “Taco House.” John Turner’s restaurant served exotic and exciting items — tacos and burritos — and customers lined up. The Taco House was so successful that Turner soon asked Holmes to build him another, then another.

“After two or three of these, Harold and Jim saw that the business could be very successful all over the country, so they bought the franchising rights,” says Carolyn O’Connor, Holmes’ daughter. Harold Holmes and James Woodson named their new business Taco John’s, in recognition of John Turner’s contribution to the brand.

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The restaurants proved to be just as popular outside of Cheyenne. Crowds gathered as the bright-red prefabricated buildings rolled into Scottsbluff, Nebraska; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Torrington, Wyoming. Interest poured in from entrepreneurs across the Midwest. Many of the earliest franchisees were fresh out of high school.

“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,” says Carolyn, who is a shareholder of Taco John’s International Inc. “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.”

There was a period of a few years during Taco John’s history where Harold was building a store a week to serve communities in the Upper Midwest and Northern Rockies.

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Holmes was a pilot, and as the business grew he and Woodson would hop into a plane and fly to meet prospective franchisees in small towns across the Midwest. They would use the aerial view to study traffic patterns and potential sites. The growth of the Taco John’s brand coincided with the demise of full-service gas stations, which created a lot of prime real estate for Taco John’s locations.

“It was the right idea at the right time, with the right opportunities,” says Janet Taylor, James Woodson’s daughter and a Taco John’s board member. “And our great food won people over fast.”

45 billion dollars is the amount Americans spend annually at Mexican restaurants.

We quickly became a dominant Mexican restaurant franchise. Taco John’s history shows that many of the franchisees who started then are still with us today, or have transitioned their business to their children. Taco John’s International, Inc. remains privately owned. Harold Holmes and James Woodson remained board members until their deaths in 2008 and 2012 respectively. Nona Holmes is still active with the board, and the two families continue to guide the board — and are excited about the company’s direction.

“We are extraordinarily optimistic about the future,” Carolyn says. “We are poised for substantial growth. Our CEO and leadership team are making a lot of moves to make Taco John’s stronger and position us to grow. We have a great group.”

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