Jim Creel ate a lot of Taco John’s tacos growing up in Casper, but never dreamed he’d one day be the Wyoming-based company’s chief executive officer.
“I was a customer from the time I was a teenager,” Creel recalled.
Creel will retire at the end of 2023 as Taco John’s CEO, after 23 years of service with the company, six of them as its CEO.
“It’s been a long career, a great career,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “I’ve never had a job I didn’t love. There were days I didn’t love jobs, but I never had a job that I didn’t love. To be able to do what you love every day — and not necessarily what I went to school for — I’ve been very blessed in my job.”
Creel went to school to study accounting and got a job right out of college working for RSM McGladrey, now doing business as just RSM.
Taco John’s was a client of McGladrey’s at the time, and Creel was working in the Cheyenne office by 1984. One day, he got a call from Taco John’s out of the blue, asking if he’d ever thought about leaving public accounting.
“So, I said, ‘Well, make me an offer,’” Creel said. “And the last part of that offer was, ‘You don’t have to wear a tie.’”
That sounded pretty good to Creel, particularly that last part.
“So, I ended up starting there January of 2000, and I went over as a director of technology,” he said.
An unusual first day
Creel’s first day on the job as the new director of technology was probably not what anyone would expect.
“I worked in the restaurant,” Creel recalled. “And you had to perform every job in the restaurant. So, I invited everybody that I’ve worked with in the past to the restaurant to come watch me make Potato Olés and tacos, and I had a great time. I love being in the restaurant. It was something different for me than I’d ever done.”
From that experience, Creel also gained a healthy respect for restaurant employees and the work they do.
“It’s a tough job,” he said. “You’re on your feet all day long and the kitchens are hot. There’s lots of danger with knives and oil and all kinds of stuff. You have to be paying attention all the time.”
After that first week, Creel went straight to working on IT systems, where he was a one-man department facing a daunting task. He needed to bring all of the Taco John’s antiquated systems into the modern age.
“We had an old IBM minicomputer,” Creel recalled. “And dial-up internet. So, the first thing I did was get everything on local area network and move everything off of the old IBM minicomputer.”
By himself, that took a couple of years to accomplish, after which Creel could bring in high-speed internet.
Now the real task he’d set out to do could begin — a credit card and gift card program, which the company still didn’t have, for all its 400 stores.
“We just had old-fashioned gift certificates,” Creel said.
With these successes, Creel had earned a couple of employees for his department, freeing him up to help the accounting and finance department, which was his area of expertise.
That began his rise in the company, moving up eventually to chief financial officer when Barry Sims was promoted to president and CEO, and finally the presidency in 2017.
These days, Taco John’s is at the forefront of technology, Creel said.
The company is among those racing to use artificial intelligence for its drive-through.
“It will take about six weeks for the computer to listen to the orders for our drive-through,” he said. “So, we’ve been going through that, and then we’ll test taking orders with artificial intelligence.”
Creel said the computer, once trained, is about 95% accurate, which he feels is on par with human accuracy.
One of the main reasons the company is looking at generative AI is a lack of employees.
“Every restaurant could use another 80 employees,” he said. “We still struggle with getting employees."
One of the many things Creel did as CEO was to open a satellite corporate office in Minneapolis.
That office, however, is not meant to take anything away from Cheyenne, Creel said.
“We will always have an office in Cheyenne,” he said. “The owners are very loyal to Wyoming and always want to have a Wyoming presence, so we’ll always have an office in Wyoming.”
The satellite in Minneapolis, though, is necessary for the brand’s expansion, Creel said.
“If you’ve done that trip from Cheyenne to Denver to Minneapolis, it eats up a good part of the day,” Creel said. “So, we’re a little bit more efficient with people who are based out of Minneapolis, as far as being able to visit our franchisees and then get more work done in a week.”
The second office, Creel added, is a good sign that the company is healthy, and it’s helping the chain continue to grow.
“The office in Minneapolis helped us get a couple of large franchisees who have committed to, one of them has committed to 65 stores over the next four years,” Creel said. “So, you know, that’s what we needed in order to be maybe viewed as a national chain instead of a small regional chain.
“And that’s our goal, is to grow from the 20-some states we’re in today to hopefully 40 states here over the next six to seven years.”
Ninety-three new stores are set for the next four years, Creel added.
“That’s what we already have commitments for,” he said. “And again, it’s good for Wyoming, because we’re going to remain a very strong healthy company.”
Taco John’s was taken completely by surprise when Taco Bell filed a petition to cancel the chain’s trademark registration for Taco Tuesday, Creel told Cowboy State Daily.
“I’m not sure what prompted them to do that at this point in time,” he said. “We’ve had the trademark for 34 years, and they didn’t contact us about using it or give us any heads up. We just read about it in the news first, and then we got the notice from the U.S. Trademark Office.”
Taco John’s plans to a file response with the Trademark Office explaining why the company believes it should be able to keep the trademark, Creel said.
“My question to (Taco Bell) is if you owned it, would you be doing the same thing?” He asked. “Or is it because you don’t have it that you wanted to do that?”
Creel added that the trademark doesn’t apply to everyday speech by everyday people.
“You can say it all you want,” he said. “You can talk about it. They make out like you can’t even say it at your house, even, but that’s not true. You just can’t use it to advertise.”
That makes it just like other trademarks involving common words, like “Who’s got the beef,” “Pizza, Pizza,” and “Where’s the beef?”
These slogans are common everyday speech with a trademark. That trademark applies only to the restaurant business and selling food items, though. Regular people can “Pizza, Pizza” or “Taco Tuesday” all they want. They just can’t use the slogans as part of a marketing campaign to sell stuff.
After LeBron James jumped into the “Taco Tuesday” fray, Taco John’s has invited the basketball superstar to Wyoming, Creel said.
“We put an article in USA Today inviting him to come to Wyoming and let’s talk about the trademark and what we should do with it,” Creel said. “We haven’t heard from him. So, don’t know if he’s ever going to respond, or if he would come to Wyoming to do that.”
The publicity flap so far hasn’t hurt Taco John’s sales, Creel added, and the company has been having some fun with publicity campaigns of its own.
In fact, sales are up, Creel said.
“Any publicity is good publicity,” he said. “So, we’ll ride that as long as we can, and then we’ll see what the trademark office has to say, because ultimately, it’s up to them.”
The Golden Years
Creel said for his first year of retirement, he’s just got two things on his calendar. The first: grandkids. The second: golf.
“That’s the only thing I’m going to do for a year,” he said. “Then, I’ll see what else is out there.”
Creel said he’s seen lots of retirees overcommit after leaving work, jumping onto lots of boards until they’re crazy busy. He’s going to take a year to think about what else he wants to do besides grandkids and golf.
Even though Creel is looking forward to retirement, he’s also going to miss Taco John’s.
“(Particularly) the people I’ve had the pleasure of working with all these years,” he said. “And it’s just amazing to me the hundreds of people who have worked for Taco John’s somewhere in the country that I run into all the time. And you know, everybody has their story about when they were a kid. And people who have moved away can’t wait to talk about Potato Olés and crispy tacos.
“So, it’s been a great company, and continues to be a great company, continues to be a Wyoming company. I couldn’t have picked a better place to work for the last 24 years.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.