Kate and Pat Manning are co-founders and operators of TACOCAT TACOCART, a taco truck located at 320 N. Main in Gunnison. Kate, who grew up in Gunnison, serves as the venture’s general manager and Pat, originally from Kremmling, as the truck’s Executive Chef.
The pair met at Western back in 2003 where they both studied Business. “I graduated from Western, Pat is technically one undergraduate shy of being a graduate of Western,” Kate says with a smirk.
After tying the knot in 2006, the duo moved to Portland, Oregon where they spent 12 years soaking up the city’s restaurant industry. Pat got his degree in culinary arts from Le Cordon Bleu and worked his way into a role as Chef De Cuisine at Toro Bravo, a highly renowned Spanish restaurant. “When he would bring in a stack of tortillas or a can of hominy, everyone would get super excited, because they knew he was going to make that for staff meal,” says Kate.
Kate, remarking that she was just “along for the ride”, worked her way around the service industry as well, becoming a manager at the local Deschutes Brewery. A friend in Portland encouraged Pat to open a food truck and sell items like posole and nachos, an idea that lingered and eventually came to fruition when the duo moved back to Gunnison in 2019.
After moving back, the pair were considering their options when Kate’s father located a taco truck for sale in Salida. “And it all just kind of fell into place. We were like ‘oh, we’ll do this take on Mexican food, it’s [really] kind of more West coast,'” notes Kate, with Pat adding a touch of Spanish influence from his restaurant experience.
The truck opened for business in the middle of October in 2019, managing to stay open until the middle of December, “when we were super gung-ho and willing to sit there in the middle of winter and freeze, and didn’t realize how bad it hurt the fridges,” notes Kate. “Gunnison turns out to be too cold for refrigerators.”
When crafting the truck’s menu offerings, tacos, the business’ namesake, were top of mind for the Mannings. “Then, we thought of ways we could use the same or very similar ingredients in lots of different ways. We didn’t want to be wasting food, we wanted to have offerings for people who are gluten-free or vegan without having to waste food. What are all the different ways we can serve the same base ingredients? That also helps with speed too; it all kind of lent itself into a synergistic menu development,” notes Kate.
Getting chile relleno burritos and a breakfast taco with bacon and eggs on the menu were also high priorities. “Then, we had all the ingredients in the truck, and it was like ‘oh my gosh, putting bacon and mayo and lettuce and pico together, it’s like a BLT, and it’s delicious,”‘ says Kate.
The truck’s central inspiration and theme is astonishingly simple: food should be a source of pleasure and comfort. “Our driving inspiration is that [our food] should always be super good, super delicious. Yes, food is fuel, but you should really enjoy what you eat. You should look forward to it, you should crave it again,” adds Kate.
She admits that the transition from Portland to Gunnison from a food sourcing perspective was a seismic shift. “We got to be super, hyper local in Portland. Your farms were within 45 miles of your restaurant, [and] you knew all the farmers. So, that was a big adjustment [moving back].”
Now, TacoCat uses a food sourcing representative that emphasizes local Colorado products, and sources cilantro, tomatillos, and other ingredients from nearby Iola Valley Farm and other local producers.
For the taco truck model, Kate says it simply is not financially sustainable to source local meat, but adds, “We’ve always been really passionate about being as eco-friendly as we possibly can be, so cutting down transport [distances], stuff like that, is really important to us,” adds Kate.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, TacoCat only shut down for a couple of weeks, reopening quickly for limited service where customers could get posole and taco kits to bring home and reheat. Around the beginning of May, Kate recalls that TacoCat reopened and full steam ahead. “I want to say it was like Cinco de Mayo and we decided to do a healthcare worker appreciation, so as I remember it was a crazy day the first day, we were back serving our hot menu.”
The entire summer of 2020 was busy for TacoCat, boosted by the advantages of the taco truck with its outside venue, contactless payment, and other built-in safety features. “We did super well, because people were super comfortable [with us],” says Kate.
In the summer of 2021, TacoCat began trialing their happy hours on Thursday and Friday late afternoons and evenings, mixing up their menu week-to-week and serving alcohol. “We ended up being the first food truck in Colorado that was given a liquor license,” says Kate. To secure the license, TacoCat had to state its intent to remain stationary, going to extra lengths like installing property fencing, removing the truck’s batteries, and removing the truck’s driving insurance.
The happy hours did well in the summer of 2021, providing Pat some much-appreciated variety in cooking from slinging burritos and tacos for the lunch rush. Now, Pat and Kate have set their sights on a new venture, 1880 Tapas and Spirits (the year of Gunnison’s founding), which will open in the Twisted Fork venue around Memorial Day.
The new restaurant will feature a largely rotating happy hour and tapas menu of more than 30 dishes. “You want to go and get a burger and a beer? Definitely. You want to come in and get like a five-course meal, and a bottle of wine? That’s the great thing about tapas, they aren’t just small plates, it’s kind of a choose-your-own-dining experience,” says Kate. “We want it to be what is good now.”
The menu will include some staples like paella, fresh pasta, and Spanish staples like tortilla espanola that are always present, major quarterly and season revisions, and smaller iterations as frequently as weekly. “This is like an adventure: what are you going to eat today?” asks Kate.
She says that the new restaurant will likely appeal to some of the more recent Gunnison transplant crowd, coming from areas with a wide range of food options and a travel habit that are always on the lookout for new experience. “[It’s an] interesting thought process, being someone who grew up here.”
The new restaurant will allow Kate and Pat to purchase and highlight more super local products, and also to delve more into the realm of cocktails and drink menus. “I’ve bartended forever, but never fully developed a [drink] program, so we’re actually using some of our friends from Portland who are coming in…it’s easy to get on the internet and get in a cocktail book and replicate something that’s been done, but he’s going to help us develop something that’s unique to us,” says Kate.
“That’s the fun part, getting to make the cocktails and have the liquor reps bring in everything. That, and the menu tasting night, those are the ones you look forward to.” TacoCat will continue serving their extended lunch hour, relocating behind Twisted Fork and providing access to both a patio and the IOOF Park for lunchtime diners. TacoCat will hopefully also be at the Gunnison Farmers Market this summer.
For Kate and Pat, TacoCat and 1880 Tapas and Spirits are culminations of their longtime passions for food, restaurants, and service, cultivated during their tenure in Portland.
Currently, Kate and Pat are working to fully staff the new restaurant, having already hired a new key staff. “We were really lucky in that we knew them. They are, like us, super passionate about food and drinks as a career, and creating an experience,” notes Kate.
Like most other businesses, they are grappling with rising material and labor costs in a post-pandemic world in a region that is facing a serious housing crunch. Kate says that paying staff fairly is a top priority, adding “we can build in a better wage, without having to raise [our] prices.”
Kate and Pat are passionate about fighting the stigma against restaurant work and industry culture that dictates that people cannot have balanced lives because they’re working six or seven nights a week, leading many to put in obscene hours in service to an entity they most often do not own.
“We’ve built it into our business plan and model to make sure we’re giving people a life. You’re [business is] only as good as your employees,” says Kate, noting plans to close for major holidays and local events so that Kate and Pat, along with the staff, can enjoy them.
For the pair, TacoCat has been transformational. “TacoCat is really the first time we got to do [service] our way,” says Kate of the truck. “It’s also been an awesome springboard for us, without TacoCat we wouldn’t be opening the new restaurant. It was a way to develop that community that is excited for a new place.”
Turning to our readers, Kate has one final message: “if anyone reading this takes anything away: ‘do a food truck, they’re hard and weird, but that’s why it’s fun.”’
Look out for more information on 1880 Tapas and Spirits, which will be open five nights per week from 4:30 to 10 p.m. They are also on Instagram.