Small businesses have a hard time succeeding over many years and so when one lasts four decades and gets into the second generation, it is really unusual.
And, when that business is a restaurant it is even more amazing because of the high failure rate of eating place.
Tijuana Taco is one of those exceptions.
It has been under the ownership and management since 1969 of Rocky Van Scyoc and now his daughter, Kelli Van Scyoc-Gomez is managing the business but dad still spends most of his days behind the counter serving food, busing tables or working in the kitchen.
Rocky was 26 years old working at his father’s service station in Olympia in 1969 he he was approached by a friend who was starting a Tijuana Taco franchise. Rocky was hired to manage the Lakewood location – the same store he runs today. It was a solid, busy location almost from day one.
There were two stores in Portland but after a short period they failed, despite Rocky’s enhanced role in trying to turn them around while continuing the Lakewood operation. After about a year, the franchisee had to turn the business back to the parent corporation which still operated restaurants in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. Rocky stayed with the parent firm supervising 15 West Coast stores.
About this time, Rocky met the woman who was to become his wife Sharon Fromhart, she was hired to manage the Lakewood store.
Over the next few years the store had three different owners but Rocky stayed part of the business. In 1975 the entire corporation was being liquidated and Dennis Kleweno who had been brought in from a burger chain to facilitate the closings saw how good the Lakewood store was and approached Rocky and told him they were both going to be out of a job soon since the company was going under. “Let’s get together and buy this store,” he said, thus starting a partnership that lasted for eight years until Rocky bought out Dennis in 1983.
Over the years there were efforts to expand. In the 1980s they opened a store in Lacey which survived for about three years. In the ‘90s Rocky opened a store in the Lakewood Mall food court. It also made it only three years.
Rocky says the store has been a success because they never over-expanded and have been able to provide quality food, courteous service, friendly workers and fair prices. The majority of employees, love their job. “We have had people leave and come back several times.”
“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t get an old employee in to eat. We are constantly hearing, ‘I used to work here 20 or 30 years ago. This was my first job!’. Now we are getting their teenage kids coming to work for us. We get people who say they can’t believe we are still around. They tell stories about how they grew up eating here, moved out of the state, and are back, and are so happy it’s the same old stuff. We also have the people who have moved away and come back to visit and have to stop in to get their Tijuana Taco fix,” exclaims Kelli, Rocky and Sharon’s daughter and store manager.
“People are amazed when they see my dad and can’t believe that he is still working. When asked why he hasn’t retired yet, he tells everyone it’s because he loves working here,” Kelli commented. Rocky has been saying that he is going to retire for the last 10 years, but every time he takes a vacation, he can’t wait to come back.
Kelli says she thinks that deep down she always knew the restaurant had to stay in the family. “I grew up here, as did my brother and sisters. I remember coming in after half-days in elementary school and hanging out while my mom and dad worked together. It has always been a part of me, and I have grown up loving the dynamic of the family working together.
“Currently, my husband Robert Gomez runs the store in the evenings and my dad and I run it during the days. Our kids come in each afternoon when I get off and my husband comes on. I can already see those memories forming like the ones I had growing up. There is nothing quite like having each morning with my dad. It is quite the bonding experience, and I feel very lucky to have these special times with him.”
“So my plan is to run Tijuana Taco for at least the next 40 years, and then hopefully one of my kids will want to carry it on. As long as we continue to provide good food for reasonable prices, and maintain a high level of expectations for our staff, I am pretty sure we can keep our regulars coming in, and keep the positive word of mouth flowing to the new customers.”
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