July 19, 2023
The battle over rights to "Taco Tuesday" seemed to come to an end on Tuesday, with fast-food chain Taco John's waving the white flag and abandoning its trademark so competitor Taco Bell (and other businesses) can use the alliterative phrase freely. But the fight is not yet over for a Jersey Shore bar.
Gregory's Restaurant & Bar, at 900 Shore Road in Somers Point, has owned the trademark in New Jersey for more than four decades. Taco John's, a rival restaurant chain to Taco Bell, found mainly in the Midwest and western U.S., had owned the phrase Taco Tuesday in the other 49 states before the company gave up the rights.
"Well, to tell you the truth, it's David versus Goliath," Greg Gregory, owner of Gregory's, said Tuesday. "It wasn't bad when I had an offensive line in front of me with Taco John's, but they kind of folded their tent. And I am stunned."
Gregory's first used the phrase in 1979 when the family-owned restaurant and bar began serving tacos solely on Tuesdays. The idea for the weekly special came while Gregory was working at a bar in Center City, before he had taken over Gregory's Bar from his father. He said he had walked to the Gallery for food research and noticed long lines of people waiting to order tacos. So, he tried one for himself.
Gregory hated the taco and hasn't eaten one since. But he said he had a feeling they could be popular with the customer base at his family's business, and he was right. He decided the bar should serve them on Tuesdays to compete with deals at a nearby Somers Point bar, and Gregory felt Taco Tuesday had a "nice ring to it."
He estimated his restaurant has served more than 2 million tacos through the years. The recipe has stayed the same since the late '70s, and the salsa recipe hasn't changed since it was found in a 1978 edition of Playboy.
One of Gregory's college professors suggested that he trademark the phrase and did the legwork to get it approved. In 1982, Gregory's was granted a federal registration for the Taco Tuesday trademark, meaning no other company in the U.S. could legally use it. But the small business failed to renew the trademark properly and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled it.
For their part, Taco John's began using the phrase "Taco Twosday" after a Minnesota Taco John's owner thought it up in the early 1980s to promote a two-tacos-for-99-cents deal. The phrase evolved into Taco Tuesday, and Taco John's officially trademarked it in 1989 everywhere in the U.S. except New Jersey, where it was determined Gregory's could keep the rights after complicated legal proceedings.
The most recent Taco Tuesday scuffle took off in May, when Taco Bell filed legal petitions with the patent office to cancel the decades-old federal trademark registrations for Taco Tuesday. The fast-food giant insisted it did not want the trademark for itself; rather, it wanted to "liberate" the phrase for all restaurants and businesses to use freely. The petitions sought to simply cancel the existing trademarks held by Taco John's and Gregory's.
Along with Taco Bell's petitions, the battle devolved into cheeky marketing jabs, which included a Taco Bell ad that showed LeBron James joining the fray.
James unsuccessfully attempted to claim the trademark back in 2019, then began starring in Taco Bell commercials slyly titled "Taco Bleep" this May. In the end, Taco John's team said they opted not to spend the money that a legal battle against Taco Bell would require.
"We've always prided ourselves on being the home of Taco Tuesday, but paying millions of dollars to lawyers to defend our mark just doesn't feel like the right thing to do," Taco John's CEO Jim Creel said Tuesday. "As we've said before, we're lovers, not fighters, at Taco John's."
Instead, the company will donate $40,000 to the Children of Restaurant Employees nonprofit, which provides financial relief to struggling restaurant workers with children, Creel said. He urged his "litigious" taco competitors, including James, to donate money to CORE, too.
For his part, Gregory said that the Taco Tuesday events at Gregory's Restaurant and Bar often raise money for local charities. For example, a Taco Tuesday event in May included a prize raffle to raise funds for the Somers Point Police Athletic League. Despite Taco John's choice not to go to court, Gregory hopes to hold on to his business' trademark as long as possible.
"We're going to try and fight it as long as it's financially feasible," Gregory said.
Gregory understands that the phrase permeates pop culture one way or another, appearing on TV shows and in movies, trademark or not. He also has had to defend the trademark in New Jersey in the past, which has consisted of making phone calls or lawyers sending letters, but it's never escalated to court, he said.
Asked why he is fighting to keep the trademark, Gregory said, "Because it stops everybody else from using our trademark to encourage their business. (If you) see a sign that says 'Taco Tuesday,' you should be going to my place, it's my trademark. I'm not the guy that invented the Whopper, I'm not calling my big hamburger a Whopper. We've raised so much money over the years in charity events on Taco Tuesday; that alone should guarantee that the government can see past this big business picking on the little guy.
"Listen, I'm a saloon keeper, I'm a good guy. I'm in a fun business. I don't want to start any trouble ... we're in the fun business. And going out to dinner, going to Taco Tuesday, having a couple cocktails, talking to your friends, meeting new friends — that's the fun part of the business. This arguing with lawyers and trademark offices and stuff is not fun."
Gregory's opened in 1946, and Gregory is a third-generation owner coming from a family of "saloon keepers." His sons mostly run the business now, and his granddaughters work there in the summer. Gregory's Taco Tuesday fans will have to wait until the fall to enjoy the delicacy again, since the bar marked its final Taco Tuesday of the season in late June. The restaurant will pick up the tradition again on Tuesdays and Thursdays in September.
If there's one good thing that has come from the Taco Tuesday war, Gregory said it's the widespread support that he's received so far.
"The rallying of people behind me is the thing that's kept me the most excited about staying in this fight," Gregory said.