The Jimboy’s story
How a local family built a business empire one taco at a time
A 95-year-old woman slouched in the corner of Jimboy’s Tacos attracted the attention of a much 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 Sacramento 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, reminiscing about the longest-running Jimboy’s Tacos location in the Sacramento area. “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. Sacramentans are fiercely proud of Jimboy’s—so much so that a slew of restaurant chefs craft homages to its taco with a crispy fried shell dusted in Parmesan cheese.
Fueling the hometown love: Jimboy’s has remained family owned after more than 60 years in business. 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 a Lake Tahoe trailer in 1954 to now operating 41 locations spread across California, Nevada and Texas.
That particular moment with Margaret and the younger man took place last October in Woodland. 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 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. Mexican restaurants were already opening in Sacramento in the 1940s.
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 SN&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 the Sacramento area, 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.
Franchising took off from there, and now Jimboy’s boasts a cultlike following that includes Food Network star Guy Fieri, who used to run a restaurant in Sacramento. (“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 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 less so. 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 posted in Spain and China instead of Taco Bells. 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 elder son and chief financial officer; and Patrick Freeman, Karen’s younger son 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 all around California 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 an instinctual 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. They lived in a house with a lake in the backyard and a sand dune in the front: the perfect place to raise children, she said.
But the original Jimboy’s location in Roseville started having problems with the landlords, and Karen jumped back into the family business.
“They didn’t want us to rent out there anymore,” Karen recalled. “They wanted to put their own place in where we’d been for 42 years. We just got a notice one day, ’You’re out next month.’”
The family lucked out and found a new spot right across the street, but “to get it really right,” Karen came down to problem-solve every weekend. She realized she missed the work, eventually returned to Jimboy’s full time and became president in 2010.
Replacing her brother Scott was the result of many conversations and, according to Karen, little drama. Scott was ready to move on, focus on his family and travel. Similarly, when Scott took over, Jim wanted to finally relax after working nonstop his whole life.
“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.
Let’s take a quick moment to address something important in this rebrand. Instead of purporting to be a Mexican fast-food company, Jimboy’s is wholeheartedly embracing its American identity—and thus dodging potential charges of cultural appropriation. Karen remembers seeing few Mexican-owned restaurants in the Sacramento suburbs when she was growing up. Her family would travel all the way to Los Angeles, to the now-touristy Olvera Street, for Mexican food. Otherwise, it was home and Jimboy’s Tacos.
“For us, it was our food,” she said. “It was what we ate.”
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 couple of months ago, Jimboy’s launched an app as well for online ordering. Finally, this retro brand is meeting current technology.
But Karen is a firm believer in many of Jimboy’s more old-school traits. She’s consulted with food engineers and scientists, as do most American fast-food companies, but she doesn’t favor them. She prefers to come up with new recipes in her home kitchen. One of Jimboy’s more recent developments, a vegetarian masala taco, was born organically out of a 30-minute cooking session after a coworker returned from a trip to India.
It’s a dramatically different flavor profile for Jimboy’s. Even though Margaret is ultimately a fan, she was shocked when she first tasted it. Karen says she’s interested in entering new territories, taking Jimboy’s to new places. She wants to add more vegetarian options and even experiment with a vegan taco, though she’s insistent any vegan offering needs to satisfy someone like her, whose favorite meals to cook at home are steak, her dad’s pot roast and tacos filled with hamburger meat.
The latter is a Jimboy’s family staple known to all as the “Cousin Jack”: a tortilla lined with a thin layer of raw hamburger meat, grilled, folded and then stuffed with tomatoes, onions and cheese. Not everyone sprinkles Parmesan cheese at the end, but Karen is all about what has become a defining characteristic of their tacos.
“It’s funny, I don’t like Parmesan so much on spaghetti or things like that, but I have to have it on tacos,” she said with a laugh.
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.”
Karen is 59, the youngest of her siblings. While her 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
Growing up in south Sacramento, Andrew Calisterio often ate at Jimboy’s Tacos. The outings were always exciting occasions, as his parents mostly cooked at home and never went to other fast-food restaurants.
“I don’t remember a point in my life not knowing what Jimboy’s was,” said Calisterio, formerly one of Sacramento’s top bartenders before moving in 2014. Now, he gets regular long-distance Jimboy’s cravings from his Bay Area home.
“When I come back, I try to take a trip to Jimboy’s to relive my childhood,” he said. “So much has changed, so many of my favorite places are under new management or have closed. Jimboy’s stays constant.”
Calisterio’s sentiments ring true 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. After all, former SN&R food critic Becky Grunewald once wrote, “the tacos are perfection … So simple yet so profound.”
Fun fact: One of Sacramento’s most popular punk bands, Drug Apts., was originally named Gymboyz as an homage to the chain. And the internet is chock-full of people guessing recipes and spice proportions, trying to hack a version of their beloved fast-food tacos at home.
It’s also a favorite with local chefs, including the ones who espouse farm-to-fork ideals and craft tiny works of art on large, white plates. Sacramento’s Scott Ostrander is arguably the top fine-dining chef in the region right now as the executive chef at the Inn at Park Winters, but even with his mind on burrata, heirloom beans and foraged garnishes, he regularly hits up Jimboy’s for chicken burritos with Spanish rice. While Sacramento’s restaurant scene continues to grow in ambition and trendiness, Jimboy’s remains in its own separate category.
“It’s a guilty-pleasure kind of place,” Ostrander said. “It’s a love of all things cheap, greasy, delicious and fast.”
Ostrander has been going to Jimboy’s for 25 years. He remembers skateboarding with friends as a kid and refueling on Jimboy’s ground beef tacos as often as possible. To this day, he returns to Jimboy’s for a single beef taco served with a side of nostalgia.
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 of Sacramentans. 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.”