2018 Family Business Awards, Business Growth: Taco Time Northwest

Taco Time began around 1960 in Oregon.

TACO TIME NORTHWEST. Co-presidents Robby Tonkin, left, and Chris Tonkin.

This article appears in print in the December 2018 issue. See more about the winners of the 2018 Family Business Awards here. Click here for a free subscription.

Taco Time Northwest
Location: Renton

The quick-service Mexican restaurant company Taco Time Northwest has a success story beyond its 56-year history. Starting in 2011, the company smoothly navigated both leadership transition and new strategy. Since then, it has experienced 60 percent revenue growth.

The transition seven years ago ushered in fourth-generation leaders, cousins Robby and Chris Tonkin, now co-presidents in their 30s. Today, the company has 80 restaurants — 56 company owned and 24 owned by franchisees — in Western Washington, Wenatchee and Moses Lake.

Robby Tonkin says key strategy steps included initiatives to use locally sourced, fresh ingredients and to encourage systemwide green practices, from encouraging recycling to using compostable wrappings. Unusual for the “fast food” industry, the company hired a corporate chef to develop entrées and culinary processes, and operated a food truck at community events to reach new customers. It opened new restaurants and acquired franchised ones, and owns the real estate on nearly 70 percent of its locations. Systemwide, there are 2,000 Taco Time Northwest employees.

Taco Time began around 1960 in Oregon. In 1962, Frank Tonkin Sr. opened the first family-operated store in Seattle. Around 1978, the family enterprise split off from what became Taco Time International and retained the rights to the current regional operation. Valuable experience and advice can still be gleaned from Chris’ dad, former CEO Matt Tonkin, and Robby’s mom, former VP of Operations Beckie Tonkin. They advise but never micromanage, Robby insists. Long-tenured employees also supported a smooth transition to the next generation.

Both cousins have kids, but it’s still early to discuss succession plans. “We’ll start those in the next five to 10 years,” Robby Tonkin says.

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