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Jon Knutson, Published May 16 2009

West-Mex goes south

Forty years ago, two Cheyenne, Wyo., businessmen with big plans purchased the franchise rights to a tiny taco shop there operated by Air Force veteran “Taco John” Turner.

Today, the concept behind that taco stand has spread throughout the Midwest and beyond.

The Taco John’s Mexican food chain now operates 425 quick-service restaurants in 25 states.

The company just opened its eighth Fargo-Moorhead store at 4522 26th Ave. S., Fargo, in the fast-growing Urban Plains area.

“We want to be part of the growth here,” said Dalton Ross, Taco John’s Fargo-Moorhead franchisee.

Taco John’s first came to Fargo-Moorhead in the early 1970s.

A store near the former Holiday Mall in south Moorhead opened in 1971. The restaurant, which no longer exists, still is remembered fondly by many longtime community residents.

A second store, which remains open, was launched in 1973 at 318 10th St. N. in Fargo.

The new south Fargo store has 35 employees, giving Taco John’s about 240 workers in Fargo-Moorhead.

The store has indoor seating for 55, compared with 82 at a typical Taco John’s restaurant, Ross said.

The reduced seating reflects the growing popularity of drive-through lanes and fewer customers eating in, he said.

When Taco John’s came to Fargo-Moorhead, its stores offered 11 menu items, all for less than $1.

There are now 50 items, all for less than $5.

Another difference is that, early on, many area customers equated Mexican food with hot spices.

That’s not the case now, Ross said.

“There’s really an emphasis on freshness today, but not so much on heat,” he said.

He and other Taco John’s officials stress the restaurants feature quick-service food, not fast food.

Though Mexican fare has become commonplace nationwide, it once was relatively unknown in the Midwest.

The two Cheyenne businessmen, Harold Holmes and Jim Woodson, figured Midwesterners would like tacos and burritos once they were exposed to the Mexican staples.

The company traditionally has concentrated on smallish Midwestern cities to which other food chains paid scant attention, said corporate spokesman Dave Schuh.

Most of the company’s restaurants are in the Midwest, particularly Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

Its corporate headquarters remains in Cheyenne.

Although Taco John’s is well known in the Upper Midwest, it doesn’t have the national clout of Taco Bell, which operates more than 5,800 stores nationwide.

Ross said Taco John’s views non-Mexican quick-service restaurants, not Taco Bell, as its primary competitor.

“We look at burgers and fries as our competition,” he said.

Taco John’s prides itself on hiring, retaining and promoting good employees, said Ross, who has been with the company since 1973.

Sonya Johnson, manager of the new Fargo store, has spent 18 years with the company, most recently serving as assistant manager of another Taco John’s restaurant in Fargo.

“It’s a great place to work,” she said of her employer.

Ross said Taco John’s has seen many changes during its 40-year history.

But the company’s commitment to providing customers with a good place to eat remains the same, he said.

“That doesn’t change,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530