If you live in the U.S., chances are you have encountered the phrase “Taco Tuesday” at some point, whether in pop culture or in everyday conversation to refer to recurring taco dinners, restaurant specials, or just the general ritual of eating tacos and other Mexican food on Tuesdays. The fact that Taco Tuesday is so widespread belies just one little complication: the term has been trademarked for 30 years, and the legal owner of the trademark — Taco John’s, a fast-food chain with nearly 400 locations mostly spread across the Midwest and Mountain region — has fiercely defended it over the decades with “hundreds” of cease-and-desist letters sent to restaurants and other businesses that use Taco Tuesday.
Taco John’s protectiveness over Taco Tuesday, which has been previously surfaced in the news, is drawing attention again after the chain sent a cease-and-desist last month to a brewery half a mile from its headquarters in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the Associated Press reports. “We certainly appreciate our fellow community member’s enthusiasm for tacos on Tuesday and the term is often used inadvertently,” the letter states. “However, it is still extremely important to us to protect our rights in this mark.”
The brewery, Freedom’s Edge Brewing Company, responded on Facebook: “We have nothing against Taco John’s, but do find it comical that some person in their corporate office would choose to send a cease and desist to a brewery that doesn’t sell or profit from the sales of tacos.” Freedom’s Edge’s use of the term has been for the purpose of advertising a taco truck that parks outside the brewery every Tuesday.
Taco John’s may hold the federal trademark for Taco Tuesday, but it’s not a particularly “strong trademark,” attorney Nikki Siesel told Priceonomics in 2016. Michael Atkins, a Seattle-based lawyer specializing in trademark issues, told the AP that the phrase is at risk of “genericide,” the process by which a brand names loses trademark rights when it becomes the generic word used to describe the product or service — like “escalator,” “aspirin,” and “thermos.”
“It’s kind of asinine to me think that one particular taco seller, or taco maker, would have monopoly rights over ‘Taco Tuesday,’” Atkins told the AP. “It has become such a common phrase that it no longer points to Taco John’s and therefore Taco John’s doesn’t have the right to tell anybody to stop using that.”
Taco Tuesday is “part of [Taco John’s] DNA”, Billie Jo Waara, the brand’s chief marketing officer at the time, told Priceonomics. The company’s website even boasts: “Ever hear of Taco Tuesday®? We started it! We even trademarked it. That’s how seriously we take tacos.”
Contrary to Taco John’s assertion that it “started” Taco Tuesday when a Minnesota franchisee supposedly coined the term in the early 1980s, the chain is far from the first to lay claim to the phrase. Before Taco John’s snagged the federal trademark for Taco Tuesday in 1989, the owner of Tortilla Flats, a now-closed restaurant in Laguna Beach, California, applied for a now-lapsed state trademark in 1984. Two years before that, Gregory’s Restaurant and Bar in Somers Point, New Jersey, trademarked Taco Tuesday in the state (which is why, to this day, the Taco John’s trademark does not apply in New Jersey).
Even before the slew of trademarking Taco Tuesday took place in the ‘80s, the phrase had been in use for nearly a decade in the U.S., and the idea of a taco special on Tuesday had existed for even longer, food writer Gustavo Arellano wrote for Thrillist last year. The earliest-documented advertisement for a Tuesday taco special that Arellano found dates back to 1933, while the first documented use of the words “Taco Tuesday” appeared in a newspaper advertisement for a drive-in restaurant in 1973.
With such a long history and ubiquitous presence across the country, Taco Tuesday, it could be argued, is for everyone (although it is worth noting, as Arellano points out in his Thrillist piece, that Taco Tuesday is more of a “white obsession,” as Mexicans would just call a day for tacos a regular Tuesday). In that regard, Taco John’s has already lost the fight to keep Taco Tuesday for itself. While the chain may legally be the sole steward of the phrase (outside of New Jersey), no matter how many cease-and-desist letters it sends, the alliterative and culinary appeal of Taco Tuesday will persist beyond Taco John’s control, an enduring reminder of just how much Mexican cuisine has become an inextricable and vital part of food culture in the United States.