Advertisement
Food

Why LeBron James should free ‘Taco Tuesday’ from its trademark shackles

lebron2.jpg
LeBron James during a game versus the Los Angeles Clippers last season
(Original photo by Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images; photo illustration by Martina Ibáñez-Baldor)

Thirty years ago, the Wyoming-based Mexican fast-food chain Taco John’s committed the culinary version of Columbusing when it trademarked “Taco Tuesday.”

The company — which tries to pass off tater tots as Mexican food — insists that it started the phrase (it didn’t), that it’s a part of its heritage (it didn’t use “Taco Tuesday” until 1989, a decade into its existence and long after the phrase had entered the culinary lexicon), and that it has every right to claim “Taco Tuesday” as its own.

Tacos
Taco Tuesday promotion somewhere in Los Angeles
(Los Angeles Times)

It does, unfortunately, because some United States Patent and Trademark Office pendejo granted Taco John’s legal rights over “Taco Tuesday” three decades ago.

Taco John’s aggressively protects its intellectual property, sending cease-and-desist letters to anyone and everyone who dares use it to promote the simple act of offering a special on tacos on the second day of the week.

Advertisement

I wrote about this last year for Thrillist, hoping that free-speech groups and restaurateurs might get inspired to purposefully use “Taco Tuesday” and invite a cease-and-desist letter from Taco John’s. From there, they could file a petition with the USPTO to cancel the chain’s ownership of the phrase on the grounds it’s too generic to keep as a trademark.

No one took the challenge.

But now, a potential taco warrior has emerged to liberate “Taco Tuesday” from the shackles of Taco John’s: LeBron James.

Tacos
Tex-Mex style tacos from HomeState in Highland Park
(Steph Cha / For The Times)

The Lakers superstar is getting savaged on social media after word emerged he’s trying to trademark “Taco Tuesday” for “advertising and marketing services,” “podcasting services” and “online entertainment services,” per an Aug. 15 application filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Advertisement

This seems to be the culmination of a year where King James has devoted nearly every Tuesday on his Instagram Stories to videos of him and his family and friends about to eat tacos. In them, he vamps for the camera before eventually yelling “Taco Tuesday!” complete with faux-mariachi trilling and an accent that makes the Frito Bandito seem as cultured as Ricardo Montalbán.

James has yet to reveal what, if anything, is the purpose of these bits. But they’ve long made me cringe, especially since it seems his idea of tacos — yellow cheese, corn salsa, lettuce — are stuck in 1997 Akron, Ohio, even though he now works and lives in L.A., the taco capital of the United States.

All indications lean toward James pulling the same cultural-appropriation crap as Taco John’s. If so, that would be a shame for an athlete who almost always lands on the right side of wokeness.

But LeBron has also inadvertently walked into an opportunity to do good.

Tito’s Tacos
Kids mess around as customers line up outside Culver City staple Tito's Tacos.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Taco John’s will no doubt fight his trademark application, as it has with other applicants in the past. But instead of trying to break off a part of the “Taco Tuesday” tostada for himself, LeBron should devote his upcoming legal battle to getting the USPTO to declare “Taco Tuesday” un-trademarkable.

That would let Americans use it freely once and for all.

“Taco Tuesday” is part of America’s culinary patrimony, a brilliant mix of commerce, culture and comida encapsulated in an alliterative aphorism. Mexican restaurants in the United States have publicized tacos as a Tuesday special in newspapers since at least the Great Depression. The earliest documented use of “Taco Tuesday” I’ve found is in the April 5, 1971, issue of the Spokane Chronicle.

Yet what seems like a fun, ubiquitous saying actually has a long, tortured history involving lawsuits and lies.

Advertisement

Restaurants have claimed ownership over the phrase since at least the 1990s, when the late, not-that-great restaurant Tortilla Flats in Laguna Beach (where cougar den Mozambique now stands) filed a lawsuit in federal court against the El Torito chain and seven other Orange County restaurants for trademark infringement. The restaurant did that even though it and its competitors had no legal right to “Taco Tuesday,” since Taco John’s successfully filed for its trademark in 1989 and has the right to it in every state except New Jersey, where Gregory’s Restaurant and Bar in Somerville can use it.

Baker’s burger stand
The Inland Empire fast-food chain Baker's Drive-Thru has used "Taco Tuesday" in its promotions since at least 1976 — three years before Taco John's claimed to have started it
(Baker’s Burgers Inc.)

Chains in Canada and Australia also have trademarked “Taco Tuesday” in their respective countries, and have sent cease-and-desists to smaller operations. “‘Taco Tuesday’ is something we all had in our childhood,” an Aussie told the press after receiving such a letter, in a quote that shows how common the saying is. “It’s like fish and chip Friday — it belongs to everyone.”

Trademark battles can last for years, draining bank accounts and stamina — and James has the money, will and social power to beat Taco John’s.

And he obviously loves tacos.

Come on, LeBron: Be the hero Mexicans have been looking for since the days of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Become the most popular Laker in the Mexican American community since Mark Madsen, and win one for la raza.

If you need any inspiration, let me take you on a L.A. taco crawl, to show you the good stuff and introduce you to entrepreneurs who would love nothing more than to name vampiros and tortas in your name if you succeed in wresting “Taco Tuesday” away from Taco John’s.

And if your trademark application is just to expand your empire? Watcha: You’ll turn an entire generation of Mexican Americans into Clippers fans. Hey, Kawhi: Have I ever told you about Guerrilla Tacos?


Newsletter
Get our weekly Tasting Notes newsletter
Advertisement