Linda Thrush still remembers the life-changing phone call she got from her husband, Ken, in November 1973.
He was at work at Boeing and was calling her where she worked as an assistant at a photography business. Six months earlier, the couple had agreed to co-sign on a loan for a high school friend of Ken’s who wanted to buy the Taco Pete fast-food Mexican restaurant that at the time was operating in an A-frame building at 13th and Meridian.
The deal went through, then the friend had a sudden change of heart.
“Ken called me and said, ‘You’re going to have to put in your notice because we’re in the restaurant business,’ ” Linda Thrush recalled.
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“I think I was a little overwhelmed the first six months. When we first went in, we had one employee and a half a day’s worth of training. I had to have customers tell me how to make things.”
Forty years later, it’s easier for the Thrushes – the owners of Wichita’s two Taco Pronto restaurants – to laugh about the unexpected, chaotic beginnings of their family business.
Today, they own and run – along with their grown sons – the restaurants at 8385 W. 21st St. North and 7333 W. Central. Taco Pronto is a fast-food taco restaurant, but it’s known for its family-friendly environment, commitment to quality ingredients and a diverse menu that stars inexpensive tacos, taco burgers and sanchos.
“We’re a family,” said Ken Thrush of his roster of 25 employees, which includes three of his four sons, a granddaughter and several long-term managers and cashiers. “We don’t have a corporate mentality. We’re food people, and we want to cater to families.”
A year after taking over the first Taco Pete’s, the Thrushes bought another one. It was at Central and Ridge, across the street from their current restaurant.
Ken Thrush quit his job at Boeing, and the couple ran both restaurants – employing their then-teenage sons and dragging along the younger two, Jason and Joe, “to keep them from killing each other” at home, Linda Thrush said. The two young boys would hang around in the kitchen while the family worked.
Then, in 1983, Taco Pete founder Don Peters died, and the couple was free to change the name of their businesses. They chose Taco Pronto, and Linda Thrush reconfigured all the recipes and spices and expanded the menu. (At one time, Wichita had 14 Taco Pete restaurants. The last one closed in 1995.)
Over the past four decades, the Thrushes have moved, opened and closed several Taco Pronto restaurants. They once had one in Derby and operated stores at Harry and Rock and Harry and Broadway. In 1991, they moved the Central and Ridge store across the street to its current building, which had room for a drive-through. And in 2007, they bought and remodeled a former Dairy Queen at 21st and Tyler and turned it into a new Taco Pronto.
The family prides itself on keeping up the quality and consistency of the food they serve – even if it costs them more to do it. They make everything themselves, from the ground beef to the salsa that’s conveniently served in cute little containers displayed in a cute mini-fridge on the front counter.
“The rule going in was, ‘I want to do this right or I don’t want to do it at all,’ ” Linda Thrush said. “I wanted the food quality, the friendly service, the clean family atmosphere. And if I couldn’t do that, I didn’t want to do it.”
Her husband laughs.
“You notice she didn’t say, ‘Make a profit,’ ” he said, teasing his wife. “She didn’t say that at all.”
Today, youngest son Joe and Ken run the 21st and Tyler store. Second-to-youngest son Jason, with help from Thrush granddaughter Tasha Gilchrest, runs the Central and Ridge store. Linda and son Dan Warren help out when needed at both.
Taco Pronto has a devoted following. Over Thanksgiving, a former regular who moved out of town came to the store and placed a $70 order, determined to be reunited with all his former favorite menu items.
Linda Thrush laughs when she talks about the various times she’s tried to remove items from the menu – such as the famous taco pizza or the labor-intensive bean nachos.
Customers won’t have it.
“Some things they just won’t let us get rid of,” she said. “I simply take them off the menu and they simply keep ordering them.”
The business has been good to the family, they say.
Both the younger Thrush sons decided early on that they wanted to help run the family business, and they’ve both put their wives through school while working at their respective stores. Linda and Ken say they hope to retire from the business within a year and are excited to see where their sons take it from there.
Expansion is a possibility, Joe Thrush said, but only if the time and circumstances are right.
“It’s provided for all of us,” he said. “We’re not getting wealthy. We’re not getting rich. But we have a job to go to every day. It put my brother and I through college, and it’s set us up for a good lifestyle.”