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Taco Johns… Making delicious memories since 1969

T-R PHOTO BY SARA JORDAN-HEINTZ Taco John’s is celebrating its 50th year in business. Owner/operator Gary Gimbel, center, has worked at the local TJ’s since 1979. He’s pictured with long-time employees, Assistant Manager Andrea McGerr, left, and Missy Townsend, right.

Food brings people together, and long-standing community restaurants are the places where memories are made and shared. This year, Taco John’s corporate marks its 50th year in business. Marshalltown’s Taco John’s, opened 43 years ago, has served thousands of loyal patrons — doing more volume than any other Taco John’s in the state. It continuously ranks in the top five in the United States. On Tuesday, customers can enjoy 69 cent hardshell tacos and 99 cent softshell tacos in honor of its golden anniversary.

A Cheyenne, Wyoming-based fast-food chain, there are 400 restaurants across the nation, but only a portion are still owner/operated. That’s one thing that makes this local eatery special to its patrons.

“I’ve been eating there for 31 years and the chicken ranch burrito and their churros are classics. I can remember always, always stopping there with my kids to get potato oles,” patron Gena Wolgamott said.

Marshalltown’s TJ’s franchise opened its doors in 1976 at 7 E. Anson Street in a blue-roofed A-frame building — what was previously an ice cream parlor. Owners Charles and DeMaris Mathison worked to make the eatery the place in town to stop for a quick bite to eat. Marshalltown Taco John’s owner/operator Gary Gimbel started there in 1979 as assistant manager. Throughout high school, Gimbel had worked at Sambo’s. But rumblings within the company (it eventually went defunct in 1982) led Gimbel to answer a newspaper ad for the assistant manager position at TJ’s.

A sign of the times

But the small space, tiny parking lot and no drive-thru window eventually led to the desire to relocate. Center Street was being widened and medians threatened to restrict traffic flow to TJ’s and surrounding businesses. The Mathisons decided to purchase an empty restaurant space at 907 S. Center Street, the current Taco John’s site.

“The biggest change was the building. We had one little counter in the original building, with limited parking, so when we moved here, it’s what really exploded the business,” Gimbel said. “The drive-thru nearly doubled business.”

In 1988 an atrium was added, followed by a party room to boost seating capacity to 120.

The Mathisons decided to purchase two TJ’s in Cedar Rapids. Then in 1989, Charles died from natural causes at 45 years old. DeMaris continued on and Gimbel began assuming more of the duties, becoming store manager. In 2007, Gimbel and his wife Sarah purchased DeMaris’ shares of the business. The couple had met, where else, but at Taco John’s.

“We still both work in the store everyday,” Gimbel said. “It used to be 200-300 of the 400 restaurants were owner/operators, and now it’s a much different world. It’s more corporate-layered.”

Some loyal customers eat at the restaurant multiple times per week. When corporate forced the Marshalltown TJ’s to discontinue its popular fries about four years ago, in favor of a unified company-wide menu, patrons were up in arms.

“I fell in love when they were on Anson Street. I sure do wish their fries would come back permanently,” patron Julie Flohrs said.

About 10 years ago, TJ’s added breakfast fare to the menu.

Leading the nation

For 16 straight years — from 1985-2001 — the Marshalltown TJ’s outperformed every other TJ’s in the United States in terms of revenue.

Customer Dale Clayton said while in college in the late ’80s he was asked by a Cedar Falls TJ’s manager what made Marshalltown’s branch distinctive.

“He came out and introduced himself, and asked me what was unique about the Marshalltown Taco John’s versus his store and others,” Clayton said. “He was curious as the Marshalltown store was the number one TJ’s in the country. I gave him an honest answer by telling him that there was more meat in each taco than at a normal TJ’s, they were the best french fries in town, it was very clean and had a wonderful, friendly staff.”

Karen Hauser Vannatta recalled running into a TJ’s manager while visiting Kansas City back in the late ’80s.

“We were at Oceans of Fun,” she said. “While standing in line we visited with people ahead of us. When we said we were from Marshalltown, the guy said ‘Oh, the Taco John’s we all strive to be.'”

Kelly Eash Krukow recalled a time when she and her friends left school to go on a TJ’s run for lunch.

“One time a friends’s car died in the drive-thru and we had to run back to school. We were very late to our next class,” she said.

Gimbel said the best part of running a Taco John’s is getting to know his employees and building relationships with loyal diners. He employees a total of 40 part-time and full-time workers.

“We try to be a good community partner. We’re so thankful for the following,” he said.

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Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or sjordan@timesrepublican.com