Taco Bell Is Leading the Campaign to Free 'Taco Tuesday' Trademark

The chain says it wants anyone and everyone to be able to use the alliterative phrase.

Taco Tuesday court filing

Courtesy of Taco Bell

Taco John’s, a Wyoming-based taco restaurant chain, is really proud of one of its two-word trademarks. “Ever hear of Taco Tuesday?” its website asks. “We started it! We even trademarked it. That’s how seriously we take tacos.” They also take that trademark seriously: during an interview with Priceonomics, Billie Jo Waara, the company’s then-chief marketing officer, recited all seven digits from memory.

Taco John’s has been quick to send cease-and-desist orders to restaurants, breweries, and other businesses who have dared to use those two words to reference their own taco-and-Tuesday combinations. “Over the years we’ve certainly asserted our trademark against national companies, restaurants big and small, and even pharmaceutical companies,” Waara said. “We also recognize that the unauthorized use [of Taco Tuesday] is prolific, and we do our best to communicate ownership. It’s a challenge for sure.”

Although Taco John’s has held that trademark in 49 states since 1989, Taco Bell is trying to convince the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to cancel that trademark registration, which would give “Taco Tuesday” back to the masses. 

“Taco Bell believes  ‘Taco Tuesday’ should belong to all who make, sell, eat and celebrate tacos,” the chain said in a statement. “In fact, 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. How can anyone Live Más if they’re not allowed to freely say ‘Taco Tuesday?’” 

The Irvine, California-based chain is not asking for financial damages, nor does it want to trademark “Taco Tuesday” for itself: it just wants everyone — including other restaurants, bars, breweries and, uh, pharmaceutical companies — to have the ability to use the phrase. Taco Bell has launched a Change.org petition in support of its trademark-cancellation efforts, and representatives from the chain will be participating in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) event on Monday, May 22 to answer questions about this campaign.

"Nobody should have exclusive rights in a common phrase,” Taco Bell continued. “Can you imagine if we weren't allowed to say 'What's up' or 'brunch?' Chaos." The idea that “Taco Tuesday” has become a reasonably common phrase has been used to criticize Taco John’s consistent hold on those words. When NBA superstar LeBron James attempted to trademark the term in 2019, the USPTO rejected his application, writing that it was “a commonplace term."

According to James’ attorneys, that was the entire point. “Finding 'Taco Tuesday' as commonplace achieves precisely what the intended outcome was, which was getting the U.S. government to recognize that someone cannot be sued for its use," a spokesperson for James told ESPN.

The near-ubiquity of the phrase comes up every time Taco John’s renews its registration, which it did most recently in 2019 (around the same time that it sent a cease-and-desist to a Cheyenne, Wyoming brewery that had been using “Taco Tuesday” on Facebook.)

Although Taco John’s has long-insisted that it “invented” Taco Tuesday, journalist and author Gustavo Arellano, who wrote Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, determined that a couple of other restaurants used the phrase well before Taco John’s. “[T]he first true documented use of ‘Taco Tuesday’ appeared in the August 20, 1973, edition of the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota,” he wrote for Thrillist. “Under the drawing of a Spanish flamenco dancer, the Snow White Drive In asked people to ‘Stop in on Taco Tuesday.’”

Arellano also discovered that restaurants in Manhattan, Kansas and in California’s Inland Empire used “Taco Tuesday” to advertise their own specials in 1975 and 1976, respectively — which also preceded one Taco John location’s first use of the phrase in 1979. (Taco John’s first used the term in national advertisements in 1982.)

Gregory’s Restaurant and Bar in Somers Point, New Jersey also beat Taco John’s to registering “Taco Tuesday” as a trademark, and it holds the exclusive rights to the term throughout the Garden State. In its petition to the USPTO, Taco Bell has asked to cancel this registration, which would free the term for use in all 50 states. 

As of this writing, The USPTO recognizes four taco-and-Tuesday related trademarks: Taco John’s version which covers 49 states; Gregory’s New Jersey-only trademark; “Techno Taco Tuesday,” which is held by the MNTRA entertainment company in Las Vegas; and “Tuesdays Were Made for Tacos at Rosa’s,” which is the property of San Antonio-based Rose’s Cafe.

Taco John’s is taking the “there’s no bad publicity” approach to the situation, using the controversy to launch a “2 Tacos for $2 Taco Tuesday” special which runs every Tuesday through May 30.

“When it comes right down to it, we’re lovers, not fighters, at Taco John’s,” the chain’s CEO Jim Creel said in a statement. “But when a big, bad bully threatens to take away the mark our forefathers originated so many decades ago, well, that just rings hollow to us. If ‘living más’ means filling the pockets of Taco Bell’s army of lawyers, we’re not interested.” The statement also includes a reference to “litigious people out there (you know who you are)” — though maybe someone needs to remind Taco John's about all of those cease-and-desists.

Taco John’s has 40 days to file a response to Taco Bell’s petition and, if an agreement isn’t reached, it will move to a discovery period. Taco Bell filed all of its legal paperwork at midnight on May 16, 2023 which, of course, was a Tuesday.

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