The Jimboy’s story

How a family built a business empire one taco at a time

Jim and Margaret Knudson were partners in all things, but when it came to the menu, Jim was in charge.

Jim and Margaret Knudson were partners in all things, but when it came to the menu, Jim was in charge.

Photo courtesy of Karen Knudson-Freeman

A 95-year-old woman slouched in the corner of Jimboy’s Tacos attracted the attention of a younger man. He stopped abruptly, crispy taco in hand, and swiveled around to get a good look.

“Are you Mrs. Jimboy?” he asked, eying her name tag. She nodded, and the customer lit up as if he’d just met his favorite celebrity. And, in a sense, Margaret Knudson is a very important celebrity, though not one most fans would recognize on the street.

“I had my first taco in 1989 at Denio’s auction in Roseville,” the man said. “Jimboy’s has been my favorite since I was a kid. I’ve been eating them for 30 years.”

This guy’s devotion to Jimboy’s Tacos is pretty standard around the region. Jimboy’s isn’t just a fast-food chain. It’s the local fast-food chain. Reno residents are fiercely proud of Jimboy’s—after all, it started not too far away in a Lake Tahoe trailer.

Fueling the love: Jimboy’s has remained family owned for more than 60 years. Jim Knudson, a.k.a. “Jimboy,” founded the company with his wife, Margaret, back when they were Grass Valley residents. They went from selling tacos out of that trailer in 1954 to now operating 38 locations spread across Nevada, California and Texas, including five in the Reno area.

That particular moment with Margaret and the younger man took place last October in Woodland, California. It was during one of the most important launch parties in Jimboy’s history, and Margaret excitedly arrived wearing matching yellow attire and sparkly glasses. The evening marked the official debut of the new Jimboy’s—contemporary-meets-vintage, with festive fonts, Edison light bulbs and shout-outs to the company’s Lake Tahoe beginnings. The look is a far cry from the crumbling, pseudo-Mexican-cantina interior of some of its oldest locations.

Did Margaret ever think Jimboy’s would grow so much? Was it what Jim, who passed away several years ago, always wanted?

“We had hoped,” she said. “Jim once said, ’You think we’ll ever go nationwide?’ We were encouraged—the way it was going, better and better with time.”

With that, the festivities segued into business with an announcement from Margaret’s daughter and Jimboy’s president, Karen Knudson-Freeman. With her frizzy hair and a casual, country drawl, Karen doesn’t immediately register as a high-powered executive of a major company—but Jimboy’s does things a little differently.

“If you’ve noticed, we’ve got kind of a new look,” she said to the crowd, sweeping her arm across the room and all of its fresh signage. “It says, ’The Original American Taco.’ That’s really what we’ve always been. Back in 1954, nobody even knew what a taco was.”

That statement should not be taken literally. Still, “The Original American Taco” is certainly catchy. And new slogans, logos and designs are rarely purely about aesthetics. A dramatic rebrand like this is a signal to the world: Jimboy’s Tacos is coming.

“I’ll be happy when I see a Jimboy’s sign on the moon,” Karen told the RN&R. “I really want to see it go everywhere, and I think it can. Whether I’ll be the one to take it there, I don’t know. But at least I’ll get started.”

A history lesson

Ah, the 1950s: Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe were pop royalty, the space race was just beginning, and The Flintstones wasn’t even on the air yet. And, in Northern Nevada and Northern California, many residents were just tasting their first tacos.

Jim and Margaret tried this new food at a friend’s house in Grass Valley. Today, Margaret doesn’t remember the exact contents of that taco, but that didn’t matter so much as the idea of a taco. A tortilla? Holding stuff in it? Consider Jim hooked.

He began selling his own version at his Grass Valley restaurant Jimmy’s 49er Cafe at a time when people still pronounced “taco” as “tay-ko.” And a whole steak dinner cost 75 cents.

In 1954, the couple converted a trailer into a mobile kitchen and set up shop on King’s Beach in Lake Tahoe. They called it “Jimboy’s Spanish Tacos,” because they thought “Spanish” might help people understand how to pronounce “taco.” A few years later, they moved the enterprise indoors and Jimboy’s became a hit, drawing celebrities such as members of the Rat Pack and television stars from Bonanza. And a few years after that, the Knudsons opened a permanent location at what’s now known as Denio’s Farmers Market & Swap Meet in Roseville.

The Knudsons and the Freemans during a family get-together. That’s Margaret Knudson in front and company president Karen Knudson behind her.

Photo courtesy of Karen Knudson-Freeman

Franchising took off from there, and now Jimboy’s boasts a cultlike following that includes Food Network star Guy Fieri. (“He’s a pretty good guy,” Karen said, grinning. “He’s just a guy who wants a taco.”)

Karen has fond memories of growing up in those Jimboy’s Tacos. She remembers sweeping as a 5-year-old and eating her dad’s Parmesan-crusted tacos all the time—in restaurants and at home.

“My dad was an amazing cook,” she said. “He just had a huge palate and understood what tasted good and how to get it there.”

Karen describes her dad as “larger-than-life,” always keen on a good prank. He relished buying Karen gifts she didn’t ask for and had never even considered, like stilts or a unicycle. Thanks to Jim’s eccentric habit, Karen went on to master juggling on a single wheel and once even twirled a baton for Ronald Reagan.

Was Jim a brilliant businessman? Perhaps not. While Jim was already feeding famous people, Glen Bell was still tinkering with his hard-shell tacos in Los Angeles. Bell didn’t open his first Taco Bell until 1962, but then he expanded rapidly and, in 1978, sold the fast-food emporium to PepsiCo for a cool $130 million. Given Jim’s head start on Bell, it isn’t hard to imagine a reality where Jimboy’s Tacos are served in Spain and China instead of Taco Bell tacos. But, as Karen explained, that just wasn’t Jim.

“He was a bit of a celebrity in a way, and I think it always surprised him,” Karen said. “He didn’t have that vision. He just wanted to make sure he and his wife would have a good life.”

In the 1980s, Jim passed the reins to his son Scott Knudson. At the time, Karen estimates, there were 19 Jimboy’s locations in the region. By 2007, they had grown to 50. Then the recession hit, and stores began shuttering one by one. In the midst of the company’s struggles, Jim also battled cancer. He died in 2011 at age 95. Still, Karen looks back on it as a happy time.

“The way he died was fantastic,” Karen said. “It was the best death. He was ready. He had no regrets.”

The whole family gathered at the hospital, all parties knowing that Jim wouldn’t survive. Karen remembers her dad screaming in agony while the nurses ran around, finally injecting him with a painkiller. Jim lay there silently with his eyes closed for about five minutes. He opened them, then shut them, then opened them, then shut them.

“He goes, ’Well, now what?’ I realized he probably thought we were euthanizing him,” Karen recounted, laughing.

Margaret is now 96. Her health is mostly strong, though she’s not so mobile these days. And then there’s the rest of the family working behind Jimboy’s—Scott, Karen’s older brother and now chairman of the board; James Freeman, Karen’s ex-husband and chief operating officer; Mike Freeman, James’ brother and the official Jimboy’s representative in Southern California; Erik Freeman, Karen’s eldest son and chief financial officer; and Patrick Freeman, Erik’s younger brother and a corporate trainer.

They make up a tightknit clan. Holidays are huge get-togethers, and Karen, James and Mike were even in a rock band called Illusion for several years. They toured in the 1980s—Karen played drums, like a boss—and still joke to this day about getting the band back together.

Karen admits that the family dynamic in the workplace hasn’t always been smooth, though. There has been some overstepping of roles, some family chatter when it’s time for business. But they’ve worked on it for the sake of Jimboy’s Tacos, always thinking about what Jim would have wanted.

“That’s one thing about this family: We are very devoted to this brand, which is why I think it’s remained true,” Karen said. “We remain true to who we are, to the food, to the experience, to Jimboy’s.”

A new vision

Jim never thought his daughter would take over the family business.

“I was the Jimgirl, not the Jimboy,” Karen said. “He came from the old school. My mom came from the old school. It was like, ’You go marry somebody who can support you.’ That’s just never who I was.”

Growing up, Karen says she always had an interest in Jimboy’s inner workings. She loved customer service and had a knack for conjuring up deliciousness in the kitchen. But she had two older brothers, so she knew she wouldn’t get her chance for years. She got married, started a family and moved to Oregon for 10 years.

In the beginning, circa 1954, Jimboy’s was a single converted trailer on King’s Beach in Lake Tahoe.

Photo courtesy of Karen Knudson-Freeman

But the original Jimboy’s location in Roseville started having problems with the landlords, and Karen jumped back into the family business. She realized she missed the work, eventually returned to Jimboy’s full time and became president in 2010.

“I think it happened just the way it was supposed to happen,” Karen said. “I love the fact that we’ve all played a part. This is here because of all of us. I’m just one more piece in this puzzle.”

For her time at the helm, Karen wants to see growth. And lots of it.

“I had a certain vision about Jimboy’s my whole life,” she said. “I thought we had a product that really crossed cultures and really could be embraced by the world, not just in the U.S.”

Canada. Australia. Some countries in Europe. And, of course, across the entirety of the United States. But the company has a long way to go, still rebuilding its roster after the Great Recession.

Its current focus is on Southern California, where Jimboy’s recently opened in Anaheim, the second shop for Orange County. According to CEO Bob Anderson, 20 more locations are in the works for California’s sunnier half. Next? Hopefully, a long-awaited break into the Bay Area.

A recent addition to the Jimboy’s team, Anderson arrived with a track record of launching emerging restaurant brands. Jimboy’s presented a slightly different challenge: “reemergence as a brand,” in Anderson’s words. But his efforts have already paid off. The Woodland location’s sales more than doubled in the months after its rebranding last fall.

Long-term, Anderson said, he wants to open 100 new Jimboy’s Tacos locations within three years. He also wants to enhance the catering program and expand the beverage lineup. And, just a few months ago, Jimboy’s launched an app as well for online ordering. Finally, this retro brand is meeting current technology.

Karen eats Jimboy’s all the time, as does the rest of the family. It’s what’s around, it’s what they like, and, after watching her parents also eat Jimboy’s constantly and thrive well into their 90s, she says she’s not terribly concerned about the health impacts of a fast-food diet.

“I think sometimes there’s a perception about food that maybe isn’t as accurate as we think it is,” she said.

Karen certainly doesn’t seem like she’s faking her love for Jimboy’s’ food. She’s proud that Jimboy’s’ staff makes everything in-house—well, except for the tortillas—at such a rate that Jimboy’s needs two encyclopedia-sized recipe books: one for components, such as ground beef or beans, and one for assembled dishes. The books are supposed to ensure consistency, perpetually a restaurant chain’s greatest challenge and one to which Jimboy’s is not immune.

In Anderson’s words: “Karen is the champion of the quality of our food. She’s a phenomenal leader because she’s a doer. She walks the walk.”

While Karen’s brothers’ kids support Jimboy’s as patrons, her two 20-something sons are active employees and, she hopes, the company’s future. If not, Jimboy’s would be at risk of becoming another faceless corporation with no real ties to its past.

“If the family hangs onto it, I’d love that,” she said. “But I’m not going to say absolutely that has to be, because everyone has to live their own life. I’ve never forced either of my sons to get into this business. It’s been their choice.”

Nostalgia, dusted with Parmesan

For a lot of Jimboy’s fans, its appeal is often more about comfort and nostalgia than the food itself. That’s not to say the food isn’t delicious.

Whenever Karen talks about “the Jimboy’s flavor,” she’s specifically referring to that ground beef taco, a taste of Jimboy’s from the days when Jim was still in the kitchen. It arrives tucked into a little paper sleeve: a crispy, fried corn shell covered with Parmesan, lined with melted American cheese and oozing with unctuous ground beef. Crisp lettuce gives it a certain—OK, maybe imagined—lightness, and the interplay of textures and flavors instantly makes you want to pound a Jimboy’s Tacos-branded beer and order another.

Back at the launch party for Jimboy’s Tacos in Woodland, people of all ages and races sat down to enjoy this very taco. Exciting new creations were going around—tacos infused with curry spices, cheesy home fries and grilled burritos brimming with beans—but no one refused the ground beef taco.

While many aspects of Jimboy’s change with the times, the beef taco’s recipe has stayed the same since its inception. It’s a shared connection for three generations. If Karen has any say in the matter, future generations will be bound together by the same Parmesan crust, too.

“I want to see this go on,” Karen said. “However it’ll go on, it’ll be good.”