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Taco John’s fields a team of NIL John-bassadors

Quick-service brand’s CMO Barry Westrum shares insights into marketing and company’s growth


Taco John’s International Inc. is putting a spin on marketing the 53-year-old quick-service brand, fielding a roster of young athletes under the NCAA’s new “Name, Image or Likeness” rules issued this summer.

Namely, all the college athletes are christened with John somehow.

“We invented our John-bassador program,” said Barry Westrum, chief marketing officer for the Cheyenne, Wyo.-born brand, “where all of our athletes across the upper Midwest — a wide range of genders and abilities — all had to be named John or Johnson or have some form of John in their name.”

The first eight included: John Breske, pitcher for Winona (Minn.) State University baseball; John Grisby, forward for University of Wyoming basketball in Laramie, Wyo.; Gabrielle Johnson, gymnast for Winona State University in St. Joseph, Minn.; Hannah Johnson, point guard for College of Saint Benedict basketball; Jake Johnson, relief pitcher of Doane University baseball in Crete, Neb.; Johnny Mologousis, University of Illinois wrestling in Champaign-Urbana, Ill.; John Tonje, small forward for Colorado State University basketball in Fort Collins, Colo.; and John Waggoner, defensive lineman for the University of Iowa football in Iowa City, Iowa.

The brand was started by John Turner in Cheyenne in 1968 and franchise rights were purchased by two businessmen in 1969. The company now has 386 units.

“We're in a lot of upper Midwest smaller college towns,” Westrum explained, “and what a great way to resonate in these communities. In Cheyenne, Wyo., we have someone on the football team. We have a wheelchair basketball player here in Minnesota. These are folks that we can sponsor. We get a lot of coverage from these towns that we do business in and frankly that allows us to kind of continue our strategy of resonating in in these upper Midwest markets as we grow.”

Part of that growth was fueled in August when Taco John’s signed a development agreement with Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meritage Hospitality Group Inc., a large Wendy’s franchisee, to build 50 taco restaurants by 2026.

“We're in 22 states today,” Westrum said, and the company expects to expand that footprint “as we move east and as we move south. “The Meritage folks, being based there in Michigan, were a great first step for us.”

Just before the pandemic was declared in March 2020, Taco John’s moved many corporate functions to Minneapolis. Minnesota has the largest number of Taco John’s franchised units, noted Westrum, who was named CMO last year.

“We see big expansion opportunities in the state as well,” he said, “but there's also a wonderful talent pool here in Minneapolis across a wide variety of functions — marketing, culinary, operations, supply chain — and so we saw that as a great opportunity to tap into the talent of the of the Twin Cities.”

Taco John’s is also expanding menus in its breakfast daypart, recently adding a coffee platform.

“We just launched our new cold brew coffee,” Westrum said. “Cold brew, for those who follow the coffee business, is a kind of a sweeter smoother ice coffee and it really resonates with younger users. It's available in mocha and vanilla for only $2. It's on our 1-2-3 menu and it's a really terrific product.”

The new coffee platform also opens opportunities for other dayparts.

“It allows us to get into the snacking afternoon daypart,” Westrum said. “We already have a hold in breakfast — almost 10% of our sales are in breakfast — and we've seen double-digit growth on breakfast this year.”

Check out the rest of the conversation in the “Snapshots of Success” video.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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