Remembering Spokane restaurateur Evan Armstrong
Entrepreneur best known for Casa Blanca eatery, bringing Taco Time hereNovember 9th, 2023
Evan Armstrong, a Spokane restaurateur who some say introduced Mexican fast food and full-service restaurants to Spokane, is being remembered by those who worked around him as a fun, daring, generous, and grateful boss and entrepreneur.
Armstrong died Oct. 28, in Spokane, at the age of 88.
He opened the first Taco Time fast-food restaurant in the Spokane area in 1965. In 1975, he opened Casa Blanca Mexican Restaurant & Cantina along Spokane Falls Boulevard, on the site where the eastern portion of the Spokane Convention Center is now located.
Candace Mumm, Armstrong’s daughter and former Spokane City Council member, says he developed an affinity for Mexican food and culture as a teenager when he picked vegetables with migrant workers on Eastern Washington farms.
Mumm says Armstrong’s company, Omni Foods, had ownership in 60 restaurants in six states throughout his career and had peak total employment of over 500.
Other restaurants Omni Foods was involved in included Rocking Horse Saloon, Fuddruckers, Rice Time Express, Perkins Restaurant & Bakery, Smitty’s, N’Rico Chicken, and Captain’s Kettle Fish & Chips, she says.
Joanne Shiosaki, who is currently assistant director of student media at Gonzaga, was Omni Foods’ director of marketing during two stints between 1983 and 1991.
“I was a young adult, and Evan let me run (marketing),” Shiosaki says. “I learned a lot from that.”
She remembers Armstrong as a mentor to many.
“He set the atmosphere,” she says. “We were a hospitality business, and we were here to make people happy.”
She says Omni Foods, which was headquartered at 9 N. Post, had reached annual sales of $6.5 million when she left the company. “He really had grown that business.”
Mumm says one of her father’s passions was employing young people and helping them achieve dreams of college and entrepreneurship.
Fernando Maldonado began working for Armstrong at 15 and quickly became recognized as an emerging chef.
Armstrong invited Maldonado, a California resident at the time, to move to Spokane, where he helped open Casa Blanca in 1975 and developed several recipes, including the 7-pound 747 Burrito.
“He was very open-minded,” Maldonado says. “He had a lot of good ideas, and he wasn’t afraid to take the risk.”
He says he and Armstrong helped friend Roger Moore launch a restaurant chain in Nebraska.
Moore, CEO of Amigos Kings Classic, considers Armstrong the inspiration for the Amigos concept and the architect of its menu and service system.
“With Evan’s help, we put together a concept for Mexican food that was a bridge between fast food and full service,” Moore says. “Some items really came from the Casa Blanca menu.”
Amigos currently has 25 stores in Nebraska.
Cyrus Vaughn, another restaurateur here, says, “We’re from the same generation. He was a friend and competitor.”
At one point, he was also a business partner Vaughn adds.
Vaughn, who has been behind about 20 restaurant concepts in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area, owns four Arby’s franchise restaurants with partner Dave McGann, and had office space in the same building as Omni Foods in the 1970s.
At that time, Vaughn and McGann were planning an Arby’s on the North Side, and Armstrong accepted an offer to buy a third of it.
“He was a great partner and always fun to be around,” Vaughn says. “He was quite the entrepreneur. He kept doing more Taco Times, and a few years later, he sold his Arby’s share back to us.”
Bill Simer, a retired accountant, helped Armstrong set up Omni Foods and was involved in many transactions with Armstrong.
Simer says Armstrong was always looking for something new. “He moved quickly, and you needed to move quickly to keep up.”
When it came time to sell Casa Blaca, Simer pursued the family that operated Azteca restaurants, and completed a deal.
At the time, Simer was a CPA at McDirmid, Mikkelsen & Seacrest PS, of Spokane.
“Evan wrote a generous letter in praise,” Simer says. He contends the letter was instrumental in Simer becoming a partner at the firm.