Mexican cuisine became popular in the 1920’s and has continued to balloon in variety and availability and can be found on every street counter right next to fast-food burgers and pizza. Taco Bell is one of the most recognizable Mexican brands in America and is largely responsible for the cuisine’s popularity. Even though they are considered a Mexican restaurant, it is not truly representative of cuisine of the culture and instead their menu is heavily Americanized. Most other Mexican fast-food restaurants have adopted this style called Tex-Mex. The chain is incredibly popular in the U.S. and are well known for their low prices and constantly changing menu that features pairing with other popular brands. Despite their claim to fame, there is another taco purveyor who has consistently created their own fast-food haven, Taco John’s. Taco John’s name may not ring the same bell as their competitor, yet they have managed to go head-to-head for over half a century.

Taco Bell was founded in 1962 by Glen Bell and is one arm of YUM! Brands that also owns Pizza Hut and KFC. Their growth started quickly in California with the brand reaching 100 locations by 1967. That growth ballooned to 325 restaurants in 1970 when the company initially went public. Their growth caught the attention of Pizza Hut’s parent and Yum! Brands added the company to their portfolio in 1978. The chain would spend the next several decades focused on aggressive expansions and cross promotions that would push the brand into public view. Taco Bell is often credited with pioneering the modern fast-food advertising campaign after their 1989 collaboration with Tim Burton’s Batman film. The company offered 4 collectible cups themed after the comic book character and the popularity of the promotion has driven countless Hollywood and fast-food collaborations since. The company continued this trend by partnering with brands like Mountain Dew and Doritos to create unique limited time offerings that routinely return to the menu. Their focus on value has also been a hit with consumers as the brand’s prices often undercut that of competitors. This taco tycoon has been successful by embracing the idea that they are a fast cheap meal for any time of day.

Taco John’s is the other side of the fast-food taco that debuted in 1969 after starting as a food truck in Wyoming. They opened their first drive-thru in 1973 and it now accounts for 70% of their business. They reached 100 locations by 1975, yet their expansion has not been aggressive as Taco Bell. In the 1970’s a Taco John’s franchisee coined the term “Taco Tuesday”, and the brand held the trademark in 49 states until this year. Taco Bell launched an advertising campaign that convinced their competitor to give up the trademark. While the campaign was a success, Taco John’s also used the opportunity for promotion and framed their adversary as a corporate bully. Outside of a few instances, they have not attempted to challenge their rival directly. They have a much smaller footprint and without a similar corporate backing, they are unlikely to out duel Taco Bell on pound for pound basis. Instead, the brand has focused on slower expansion and ensuring the highest sales volume from each restaurant. The small-town feel is unusual in chain restaurants, but Taco John’s sees it as a strength. The brand has also been transforming their menu to move further away from Tex-Mex and hewing closer to authentic Mexican flavors and items.

Tacos are a heavily customizable food and the argument about what makes the best taco will likely never be settled. Similarly, these two companies have catered to different crowds and have gone in different directions even though they began in the same decade with the same concept. It is unlikely that Taco John’s will ever overtake their goliath rival, yet with over fifty years of coexistence, they don’t have to. Now that Taco Tuesday is “free” for everyone, both brands will continue to expand and innovate.