Councilman, retired police officer finds new Tex-Mex career
McCOOK, Neb. — McCook City Councilman Jerry Calvin stopped by Taco John's 21⁄2 years ago, in a hurry to get to a meeting. When Jerry got his order, Taco John owner Randy Harper asked him, in essence, "Do you want a restaurant with that?"
Jerry said Randy asked him, over his all-time favorite menu item, a taco burger, "Have you ever thought of buying this restaurant?"
"Well, no. No, I haven't. I've never worked in a restaurant," Jerry said. At home, Jerry told his wife, Robin. "She laughed about it," Jerry said, smiling his lopsided grin.
Six months later, Randy broached the subject again. Jerry remembers, "Randy said he was serious about us buying the restaurant. He was looking to retire." And Jerry's inner voice kept telling him, "I've never done this … "
But Jerry was not happy at his current job. "I was miserable. My job (in soft drink distribution) was taking too much of my life," Jerry said, so he and Robin wondered whether Taco John's was just what they needed. "You know how God closes a door? And opens a window?" says Jerry, who is also a retired McCook police officer. Well, he believes, Taco John's became that window.
Robin's job as a secretary at St. Patrick's Catholic Elementary School allowed her to take the summer of 2017 and work at Taco John for a time.
"The irony of all this is," Jerry says, as a McCook city council member, he believes in and works hard to retain local businesses and encourages "shopping local." Jerry said, "When Randy asked us to transition a McCook business to another local ownership, Robin said, 'Let's do it.'" Jerry believes in talkin' the talk and walkin' the walk.
Taco John's is a franchise, Jerry admits, but it has both local ownership and operation. With his and Robin's purchase, the TJ's in McCook would remain locally owned and operated.
So, by the spring of 2018, Robin and Jerry had made the final decision to buy TJ's.
Jerry said, "We shook on it. In my world, that's as good as a contract."
Jerry quit his job on Sept. 8, 2018, and on Oct. 2, 2018, he and Robin became just the second owners of the 42-year-old McCook institution.
Randy and Dan opened the McCook TJ's in July 1976, on the busy B Street and highway location of a former gas station. When they started, a taco cost a quarter. With an ornery grin, Dan remembers teasing customers with his "really good deal" on crispy tacos, "I'll sell ya four … for a dollar."
The brothers brought experience they gained when they worked for their dad, Mel Harper, who started a Taco John restaurant in Hastings in 1973. Randy says, "We owe everything to Mom and Dad."
When Mel opened his Hastings location, the franchise was only four years old, having gotten its start in Cheyenne, Wyo., in March 1969, when "Taco John" John Turner fused traditional south-of-the-border Mexican food with bold western American flavors.
"When we opened in McCook, McCook was the smallest community to have a Taco John's," Randy said. It is the three-state "trade area" and the restaurant's highway visibility and accessibility that help make the restaurant the success it is today, Randy acknowledges, paying sincere tribute to customers from all over, friends and family.
Dan moved to Lexington to open another TJ's in September of 1978, and returned to the McCook restaurant in 1999 to work with Randy in maintenance and bookkeeping and as head dishwasher.
The learning curve for Robin and Jerry is on the uphill side — like Jerry said, he has no experience in food service. "Randy and Dan are mentoring two very inexperienced people. But they have the patience of Job," he said. Randy said, "We knew they could do it. They're right for the job. And now, they'll have something at the end of the rainbow. They'll have something to show for their retirement."
Jerry and Robin have changed nothing. "Oh, Robin put out some Christmas decorations," Jerry said, and they plan some equipment upgrades. "But," he said, with a chuckle. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. All we've had to do is get in the pilot's seat and learn to fly it."
And you don't monkey with tradition — the ever-popular, very busy "Taco Tuesday" continues.
Dan and Randy have "officially" retired, but Randy continues to come in to help Jerry with the cooking side of the business, and Dan helps Robin with the bookwork and accounting.
Randy said sales have held since the Calvins took over ownership in October. He says, "We're having a good year."
The Calvins started entertaining the possibility of owning and operating Taco John's over Jerry's favorite menu item, a taco burger. Robin's favorite is a taco bravo.
Randy, even after all these years, doesn't have a "favorite" menu item. Just don't ever put sour cream or guacamole on anything he orders.
And Dan — Dan's first love is a crispy taco, with red hot sauce or the green very hot sauce, or maybe a little bit of each. And Dan is TJ's own, personal "Mikey." You remember Mikey? The 1970s-era TV commercial character whose brothers shoved a bowl of cereal at him and said, "Give it to Mikey. He won't eat it. He hates everything." But picky-eater Mikey likes the cereal and his brothers exclaim," Hey! He likes it!" Well, Dan is TJ's "Mikey." Dan's the man for the occasional order mix-up. The four share a laugh as Randy, Jerry and Robin exclaim, "Hey! He likes it!"
Taco John's is located at 710 West B, on the south side of Highways 6&34 and 83 as they run through McCook. The phone number is (308) 345-1980.
The full menu is available every day, all day. The hours are 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 8 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday.