Chris and Robby Tonkin follow a comfortable, familiar pattern when meeting someone new. Such was the case on a seasonably warm Friday morning in August, during an interview at their family-owned Taco Time Northwest restaurant in the Renton Highlands.
“Hi, I’m Chris.”
“And I’m Chris’ cousin,” Robby followed, pausing to allow for a laugh before proffering his name.
It’s a singular greeting for these close cousins, who grew up together on the Eastside and inside their family’s business. Today they share a job title: co-presidents of Taco Time Northwest, a legacy business started by their great-grandfather, Frank Tonkin, 57 years ago.
Chris, 34, and Robby, 40, worked just about every position of their family’s business, beginning part-time during high school, then during quarterly breaks from the University of Washington, their alma mater.
After college, Chris joined his father, Matt, and worked in the company’s Renton-based corporate office full time. Robby, however, had other plans.
“I went to law school and started practicing law for a short period of time (doing) business-transaction work,” he said. “My plan was to stay (in law) for three years, get some experience, and then go to Taco Time.”
In 2004, shortly after Robby began his law career, his father, Bob, who was working for the family business, was diagnosed with cancer subsequently and died several months later.
“When that happened, I just thought, ‘Gosh, this is where my heart is,’” Robby recalled. “I called up (Chris’) dad, my uncle, and said, ‘Hey, I’d love to come to work.’ He was awesome, and in January 2005, I started (at the company). I’ve been here ever since.”
Today, the two are the fourth generation of Tonkins to lead Taco Time Northwest — not to be confused with similar restaurants outside of Western Washington known as Taco Time — which includes 79 Western Washington locations — 56 are family-owned corporate restaurants, while 23 are franchised — and more than 2,000 employees.
As co-presidents and owners, Chris focuses more on operations and training, while Robby oversees marketing, purchasing, accounting, and human resources.
The duo credits much of its success to the employees, many of whom are family — literally and figuratively.
“I think it’s the main reason we’ve been able to be successful and fairly young in our roles,” Chris said. “We say this is our Taco Time family, but we really did grow up with these people. I mean, many 30-plus-year employees knew us as little toddlers.”
“I think it just tightens those relationships,” Robby added.
Keeping it in the Family
Historic photos courtesy Taco Time Northwest
The Tonkin family’s business roots can be traced back more than 135 years, when the cousins’ great-great-great-grandfather, James Tonkin, settled in Renton and founded a small general store there. Today, Tonkin Park marks the site of where that general store once stood.
Three generations of Tonkins worked in that store. In 1933, James’ grandson, Frank Tonkin, was so bolstered by his experience in the family business that he opened Tonkin’s Café and Turf in downtown Renton. Twenty-five years later, Frank opened Bif’s Drive-In, also in Renton.
At this point, the Tonkin family’s business timeline becomes a bit opaque, as family stories passed down through generations often do.
“I believe the story was that it was his cash register salesman,” Chris said.
“Or his milkman,” Robby interjected.
“Right, or his milkman,” Chris agreed. “Someone like that said, ‘There’s this great up-and-coming concept called Taco Time in Oregon.’ He went down there, saw it first-hand, and bought a third of that company. (Then, he) came up here and started opening franchises.”
In 1962, Frank opened the first Seattle-area Taco Time, in White Center, and several other area franchises followed. With the help of his son, Frank Jr. (known to most as “Jim”), the serial entrepreneur shuttered his café and converted his Renton drive-in into another Taco Time franchise location.
The business evolved over the next several decades. In the 1970s, the Tonkins added drive-thru access to many of its fast-casual Mexican eateries, and the family owned nearly 20 franchise locations in the Puget Sound region by decade’s end. Yet, something didn’t sit right with Frank.
That Other Taco Time
In the late 1970s, as franchise restaurants like Burger King, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s were gaining traction across the country, Taco Time appeared likely to follow suit. This strategy caused the Tonkins to pause.
“Our great-grandfather was a restaurant operator at heart, and the parent company, Taco Time International, really just went down the path of franchising,” Chris said. “He kind of saw (Taco Time) going down a path that he maybe didn’t agree with, and he really wanted to operate and control the restaurants. So, he made a deal.”
In 1979, Frank decided to divorce his franchises from their Oregon-based parent, and Taco Time Northwest was born. The Tonkins retained control of the franchises they held in Western Washington — along with restaurants in Wenatchee and Moses Lake — while the restaurants in Eastern Washington and Oregon remained with their parent company.
So, yes; today there are two Taco Times: Taco Time Northwest, owned and operated by the Tonkins, and Taco Time, which is part of Arizona-based Kahala Brands, the portfolio for which includes several other well-known franchises, such as Cold Stone Creamery, Pinkberry, Blimpie, and Baja Fresh. Kahala currently operates more than 300 Taco Time restaurants across Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Illinois, Iowa, and Canada.
The cousins are the first to admit that they are in a “unique situation” as one of two very similar companies that share the same name.
“It’s a challenge we’re probably always going to face when people come in and they are new to our concept,” Robby said. “We always have to tell this story of how we’ve really evolved — (we’ve) gone this way, and they’ve gone that way.”
While the two separate entities do share some similar menu items, like crunchy Mexi-Fries, Robby said most similarities end with the name.
“We don’t talk, and we don’t share anything — it’s pretty different,” he said. “You’ll see a couple of items that are the same, but they actually taste different. Very different.”
Innovation for a New Generation
As the latest in a long line of Tonkin entrepreneurs, Chris and Robby aren’t just carrying the Taco Time Northwest torch; they are endeavoring to usher in a new era of innovation while embracing the lessons of previous generations.
As did their great-grandfather, the cousins see advantages in ownership over franchising. Of Taco Time Northwest’s 79 Western Washington locations, only 23 are franchised.
“Prior generations did do a few franchises, (but) we haven’t sold a franchise for maybe 10 or 15 years — it’s been a while,” Robby said. “We’re never going to sell one again. It’s not the business we are in. In fact, we’ve been actively buying those (franchises) back.”
Robby said maintaining ownership of the restaurants allows the family to control the guest experience.
“When you are a franchisee, you can choose what prices to charge, who to hire, how to train them,” he said. “(These are) some of the key things that, as a guest when you go into (a restaurant), you can see (the) difference.”
More than hiring and training, the Tonkins believe the physical location of each restaurant goes a long way to boost the guest experience; that’s why they are committed to owning their own real estate and performing “significant remodels” on locations that aren’t on brand.
In 2014, the company worked with Bellevue-based GMA Research to convene several focus groups and ask people who were likely to eat at fast-casual dining establishments what they wanted. That feedback served as a foundation to design what Chris referred to as the “Taco Time for the future.” For this venture, the company selected Tacoma-based architectural firm BCRA, which designed a prototype restaurant in Issaquah.
The prototype included an updated exterior design with bright colors, a shed roof, and an enhanced outdoor seating area complete with a fireplace that is shared with the interior dining room. Inside, a new ordering process made it easier for guests to peruse the menu, while an open kitchen layout allowed for greater transparency during the food-preparation process.
One design innovation the cousins are especially proud of is a drive-thru feature that allows customers to watch their food being prepped.
“We really wanted to showcase our fresh ingredients,” Chris said. “It was really important to us that the long drive-thru line, where usually you see a side of a building, (that instead) we have a bunch of big windows — you’ll see right into our kitchen.”
Other brand innovations include a revamped digital learning-management system for training new employees, a comprehensive smartphone app for on-the-go ordering, and a stand inside CenturyLink Field specifically for Seattle Seahawks games — the company does not currently operate during Seattle Sounders games, or other events held at the venue.
Fairly new to the brand, too, is a comprehensive composting program that, in 2017 alone, helped divert 1,900 tons of usable compostable material from landfills.
“Everything that you get — all that paper packaging — is all compostable,” Robby said, as he mimicked throwing trash into one of the restaurant’s compost trash bins. “It’s pretty significant because there’s potentially a lot of waste generated from these types of restaurants.”
What’s next for the Tonkin family?
Time will tell whether Robby’s family of five or Chris’ two young children will join the Taco Time Northwest legacy as its fifth generation — and as the seventh generation of Tonkin entrepreneurs in Renton. But what is clear is that the cousins themselves are far from done.
In the years ahead, they hope to continue to improve employee training; purchase those remaining franchises as they become available; and bring the rest of the Taco Time Northwest locations, many of which were built in the 1980s and 1990s, in line with the new restaurant design concept. But mostly, the family endeavors to keep providing fresh, locally sourced food as the generations that came before them have done.
“We bring in full truckloads of fresh lettuce; we have 40-pound blocks of 90-day aged Darigold cheddar cheese that we shred every day; we fry our tostado bowls, chips, and all that stuff, we make fresh every day,” Robby said. “A lot of people don’t know that … but that is really what continues to separate us from the larger chains.”