Who owns the phrase 'Taco Tuesday'? According to Taco Bell, it should be everyone

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APR. 19, 2019: Customers enjoy their lunch as Sonoratown taqueria fills up during a lunch rush on Friday, Apr. 19, 2019, in downtown Los Angeles. Sonoratown's co-owners Jennifer Feltham and her partner Teodoro Diaz-Rodriguez, Jr. opened the small but very popular taqueria three years ago, and, in the style of San Luis R'o Colorado, Sonora region of Northern Mexico, they focused on well-prepared carne asada and buttery flour tortillas. (Photo / Silvia Razgova) 3077219_la-fo-escarcega-sonoratown-review
Customers enjoy tacos and burritos at the counter at Sonoratown taqueria in downtown Los Angeles. (Silvia Razgova / For The Times)

Who owns the phrase “Taco Tuesday”? According to the government's patent office, the answer in 49 states is Taco John's, a fast-food chain based in Wyoming. But if Taco Bell had its way, the answer would be everyone.

A decades-long, taco-promotion turf war reached new heights on Tuesday when Taco Bell launched a campaign to cancel federal trademarks for “Taco Tuesday,” held through much of the country by Taco John’s since 1989.

Notably, Taco Bell says it isn’t seeking to claim the trademark for its sole usage but to “liberate” the phrase for all companies to use without threat of legal repercussion. The multinational chain filed legal petitions with the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to free the term. The company also launched a Change.org petition and scheduled a Reddit AMA (ask-me-anything) forum on the topic.

“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,” the company announcement read. “How can anyone Live Más if they’re not allowed to freely say ‘Taco Tuesday?’ It’s pure chaos.”

Taco John’s claims to have invented the phrase despite many references to the practice of Tuesday taco specials predating Taco John’s existence by decades — as documented by L.A. Times columnist Gustavo Arellano and others.

A vertical photo of a tray of food and a Baja Blast slushie on a tray in the foreground; behind is the bar and faux marquee.
Taco Bell debuted its first Los Angeles Taco Bell Cantina earlier this year with a 1920s theme, flat-screen TVs, a merch counter and boozy Baja Blast slushies in Hollywood. (Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Taco John’s currently operates nearly 400 locations nationwide, mostly in the Midwest. Its official website states: “Ever hear of Taco Tuesday®? We started it! We even trademarked it. That’s how seriously we take tacos.”

The chain isn't backing down on its claim.

"When it comes right down to it, we're lovers, not fighters, at Taco John's," Chief Executive Jim Creel said in a public statement Tuesday afternoon. "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."

Taco Bell’s challenge is far from the first time the legitimacy of the phrase has been questioned, or at least attempted to be claimed. Gregory’s Restaurant and Bar holds the patent on the phrase in the state of New Jersey, having filed for it in 1979 and been awarded it in 1982. Their story goes that they began serving tacos on a Tuesday night in 1972.

“That night we coined the phrase Taco Tuesday,” its website says, “and created a mainstay for almost four decades.” Legally, Taco John’s can use “Taco Tuesday” in every state but New Jersey.

Taco Bell also filed to cancel Gregory’s trademark of the phrase in that state today.

In 2019, Lakers star LeBron James unsuccessfully filed to trademark the term for his own proprietary purposes, while in 2018 a Mexican restaurant in Calgary received a cease-and-desist letter over the phrase from a Canada-based restaurant group citing its own hold of the trademark. In 1997, the owners of now-closed Laguna Beach restaurant Tortilla Flats filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against multiple Orange County restaurants — including El Torito — arguing that the usage of the term infringed upon Tortilla Flats’ 1984 trademark.

“Give me a break,” Cathay Seabol, a waitress at defendant La Siesta Mexican Food, told The Times in 1997. “Everybody has Taco Tuesdays.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.