Beatriz Mata and Carlos Gomez underestimated the crowds.
As owners of a food truck business during a pandemic, the couple eagerly accepted UK’s offer to come to campus during this fall semester. Mata said the business from students has been a great opportunity for them, considering a lack of community events where they would typically operate.
“We would usually go to neighborhoods or festivals but right now with COVID, the festivals got cancelled,” Mata said.
Students’ interest in their authentic Mexican cuisine surpassed their expectations, she said. While Nathan’s Taqueria is only on campus from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, they serve an average of 197 customers each day, according to Vigg Pulkit, Resident District Manager of UK Dining.
Nathan’s Taqueria is one of two food trucks currently on campus; the other is a Papa John’s trailer on Patterson Drive. In the beginning of the semester, there were four food trucks—an additional Papa John’s and a Chik-fil-A were set up in front of the 90 on a temporary basis while the dining hall was being remodeled, said UK spokesperson Jay Blanton.
These food trucks also garnered crowds, with daily customer averages of 253 for Chik-fil-A, 264 for Papa John’s location at the 90, and 18 for the Papa John’s Patterson Drive trailer.
UK students who visit Nathan’s Taqueria, stationed in front of William T. Young library across from the 90, can choose from a limited menu of Nathan’s Taqueria staples, including the campus favorite, the chicken burrito bowl.
“We want to get (students) to try our flavor from Mexico. You know, invite them to try the street tacos,” Mata said. “Everything is always from scratch. Really, we’re trying to bring them fresh food every day.”
Students don’t have to worry about carrying around cash or credit to enjoy a quesadilla or taco. During lunchtime, they can use meal swipes at both food truck locations. Pulkit said that Nathan’s Taqueria and Papa John’s both have “a competitive financial agreement with UK regarding how revenues are split.”
Mata said a representative from UK’s dining partner called them over the summer, asking them if they were interested in setting up on campus. They told her they were interested in “a different type of food,” she said. All they had to do was get licensed with the health department and they could begin operations on Aug. 17, the first day of school.
“We’re really thankful for the support of the students and the community during this time because of the pandemic,” she said. “Our business is not doing bad, it’s doing really good thanks to the support of the community here in Lexington and UK campus.”
UK Dining is in charge of finding and choosing food trucks to invite to campus. They like to partner with local and minority businesses, Pulkit said. Other criteria include insurance and staffing requirements, local reviews and overall food quality of the trucks under consideration.
Nathan’s Taqueria is a family business, and it prides itself on offering only the most authentic Mexican food. Mata and Gomez hail from Mexico City and neighboring state Michoacán, respectively, and moved to Kentucky 20 years ago. Gomez used to work in a restaurant, and ever since, it was his dream to start a restaurant or food truck.
His opportunity to do just that presented itself three years ago, when Gomez and Mata began serving out of their first Nathan’s Taqueria food truck. Now, they have two trucks. The other one sets up at bars Lexington Wednesdays through Saturdays. Regular updates on the food truck’s schedule are posted on Nathan Taqueria’s Facebook page.
In the next few years, Gomez aspires to open his own restaurant in Lexington.
“We’ll see how everything goes, but that’s the main plan,” Mata said.
During the COVID summer months, after restaurants were allowed to open again, Nathan’s Taqueria stayed financially stable by rotating through Lexington’s various neighborhoods. During the extended winter break, Mata and Gomez’ family will continue serving at bars until the colder weather sets in, at which time they will take a holiday break of their own.
Nathan’s Taqueria’s last day on campus is Nov. 24, the final day of in-person classes. UK told Mata that they don’t know what their spring plans are yet, but that they would likely contact her in early December with a decision. Blanton said discussions with UK’s dining partner are ongoing.
“We really would like to come back,” Mata said. “The students keep asking if we’re coming back. They said that they really enjoy the food.”