KOKOMO, Ind. – All his life, Ben Van Baalen has dreamed of following his family’s tradition, as a business owner in Miami County.
As he finishes his business degree at Indiana University Kokomo, he’s also preparing to accomplish his goal, opening a Taco John’s franchise in Peru.
The best part, he said, is bringing a community favorite back to his hometown, which had a successful Taco John’s for 40 years, until it closed in 2014.
“For me, the single most rewarding piece is that I get to go home,” Van Baalen said. “I get to serve my hometown, and see how excited they are for me to do this. They are going to give me a shot. I just have to do a good job, and make them want to come back.”
Business runs in his family’s blood. His grandfather, Phillip Van Baalen, owned a grocery store, as well as Van’s, a sporting goods store in Peru, and eventually expanded to a store in Kokomo.
His father, David Van Baalen, is no stranger to the restaurant business, as a Subway franchisee and owner of Beef O’Brady’s in Peru, in addition to being a real estate developer.
Ben Van Baalen can’t remember a time he didn’t want to join them as a business owner, adding that he started working at the family restaurant when he was 10.
It won’t be easy — he plans to open the restaurant in June 2020, and graduate in December 2020. Construction is underway in the new location, on North Broadway. His winter break and spring break will be spent at company headquarters in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for training. He will finish that process in May, after the spring semester ends.
He appreciates that the company is willing to work around his schedule to allow him to go to school and prepare to open.
“They didn’t love the idea at first, but they were flexible enough to make it work,” he said. “When they saw the history of Taco John’s in Peru, and how the community responds when they hear about it, they were on board as well.”
His choice of franchise was “a no-brainer,” he said, because of its successful history.
“The people of Peru and Miami County have a nostalgic reaction whenever they hear about Taco John’s,” Van Baalen said. “They’ve been driving to Michigan and Lebanon just because they have to have their Taco John’s. Everyone I’ve talked to is thrilled to have it come back.”
He also has a family connection — his mother’s first job in high school was at Taco John’s in Peru.
This is not your parents’ restaurant, though. He noted the company recently updated its 50-year-old brand, “and that makes it perfect for what we want to do.”
They also provide support, and will have people there to help him leading up to opening, and during the first few weeks in business.
His father is there for advice and support — but only as needed.
“He is the perfect person to learn from and support me in this,” he said. “He will help if I need him, but will stand back and let me do it.”
Van Baalen anticipates what he’s learned in the School of Business has prepared him to be a successful business owner.
“The biggest thing is accounting,” he said. “I hated accounting, but those classes will help me every day of my life. It affects every aspect of the business, or any business I might venture into. There are also some things like professionalism, communication, and the ability to work with people that are harder to replicate anywhere other than in the university environment.”
Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.