Taco Tuesday is one of those phrases that seems like it's been around forever. Even if you're not a fan of Mexican food, you've stumbled across those words somewhere in a school cafeteria, local bar, or food blog with tips about easy weeknight dinners. But why Tuesday? Sure, it's alliterative, but if it were just that, Taco Thursday might be a thing, too.
Taco Tuesday's history is complicated, even past the multiple origin stories. The name has a federal trademark held by Taco John's since 1989; the fast-food chain, which is based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, frequently sends out cease and desist letters to restaurants across the country who dare to brand their own Taco Tuesday as such.
But the chain doesn't have a lock on the first use of the name in Taco Tuesday history. They weren't even the first restaurant to trademark the phrase "Taco Tuesday," though the other restaurants that did so only sought a trademark in their home states (which is why Taco John's national trademark does not apply in New Jersey).
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According to Thrillist, Taco Tuesday's history goes back to the first use of the phrase "in August 20, 1973, edition of the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota. Under the drawing of a Spanish flamenco dancer, the Snow White Drive-In asked people to 'Stop in on Taco Tuesday.'" Even earlier than that, restaurants had been promoting Tuesday taco specials; though none of those carried the name, the idea to offer a deal for hard shell tacos on Tuesday night was obviously not a new one.
Two other restaurants claim to have started the trend of Taco Tuesday. Tortilla Flats, a now-closed restaurant in Laguna Beach, California, received a California state trademark in 1984. Gregory's Restaurant and Bar in Somers Point, New Jersey, trademarked the name in 1982 (thus the reason the Taco John's trademark doesn't apply in New Jersey).
So why does Taco John's get the trademark? Well, for one thing, they filed for it on a federal level first. As they claim on their website, "Ever hear of Taco Tuesday®? We started it! We even trademarked it." But as Thrillist reports, their claim isn't all it's cracked up to be. Various news releases, web stories, and spokespeople for the Mexican restaurant chain have told different stories about when and how Taco Tuesday got its start:
Even Taco John's own trademark application gives a different story, saying they first used the phrase in 1979. Given how catchy the phrase is and well it describes a menu deal (as in Taco Twosday), it's easy to see how multiple people could come up with the same phrase independently. Maybe the fact that, although they didn't necessarily solely coin the phrase, Taco John's thought to file for a trademark first gives them some leverage.
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Maybe not that much leverage, though, since the chain has to constantly pick fights with smaller competitors. The Tuesday special has become ubiquitous across the United States, which is why Taco John's frequently sends out the cease and desist letters. According to a story on Taco Tuesday history in Priceonomics, Taco John's is willing to keep fighting the Taco Tuesday battle:
"It's just unfathomable to us not to protect it," says chief marketing officer Billie Jo Waara. "It's part of our DNA. Taco Tuesday is this American institution. Not to take the chance to talk about it and our story, that would go against who we are."
There's a question of whether or not Taco John's should have the right to trademark a fairly common descriptive phrase. It's as if a restaurant tried to trademark "Sunday Brunch" as an official name. Fighting every small restaurant that uses the phrase is also not necessarily the best business practice. Most people don't associate the idea of having tacos on Tuesday with Taco John's, so a heavy hand with a local favorite could sour potential new customers on the Mexican food chain.
Trademarking the phrase doesn't prevent other restaurants from offering a Tuesday taco deal. Everyone knows what it is, even if the exact words aren't used. For example, in 2017 Taco Bell offered free tacos as part of their NBA finals promotion. It wasn't officially a "Taco Tuesday" deal, but many of the articles written about the promotion use the exact phrase because it's so common.
The origins of Taco Tuesday history may not be clear, but one thing is for sure: Our favorite deal on one of our favorite Mexican dishes isn't going anywhere.
Editors Note: This article was originally published on March 8, 2021.