After more than three decades serving up comfort food as a fixture of the neighborhood around Caltech, Ernie Mercado is ready to park Ernie’s Al Fresco food truck for good.
He’s become a fixture for generations of students, professors, construction workers, and other hungry patrons at the storied institution.
Upon hearing of his planned retirement, loyal customers-turned-friends sprang into action to make sure Mercado knew he was appreciated.
A fundraiser established online at https://www.gofundme.com/f/ernie039s-al-fresco-appreciation had garnered more than $26,000 in donations in three days as of Wednesday.
Despite loving the work and the customers, Mercado said age is catching up with him.
“I feel 40, but my body keeps telling me I’m 71. It’s about time,” he said.
The students he served reminded him of his own daughter when she was going to college far from home, Mercado said.
“So every time some new student would come to the truck and, I would see her face,” he said. “So I try to provide the best service that I could, thinking of her.”
“When the new students would come in, they were very shy and they wouldn’t even laugh at my jokes,” he quipped. “To me, it was a great feeling to see them be able to break the ice and make them feel comfortable because they were away from home.”
Mercado said he first pulled his food truck up near Caltech more than three decades ago to feed some hungry construction workers. But students and staff of the university soon discovered Ernie’s Al Fresco food truck, and he became a local fixture.
He recalled a young boy, who was the son of a professor, who would regularly visit the truck for a tuna sandwich. Mercado said he told the young man that when he returned to the college as a student, his first meal would be free.
A decade or so later, Mercado and the young customer met again. “One day, this guy came and he said, ‘I’m here for my free lunch,’” Mercado said.
“Every memory has been very, very good, from the time that somebody leaves and comes back 10 years later, who have kids, to the times they bring the parents and I will tell them, ‘OK, there will be no beer for you today,’” he said. “Every moment has been a great memory.”
Mercado said he was astounded by the outpouring of support that he has received in recent days.
“It surprised the hell out of me,” he said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
“I can’t even describe how I feel about that. I’m very thankful to everybody,” he said.
The money “will help a lot,” he said. “The comments that they made is what touched my heart.”
As a retiree, Mercado said he’s looking forward to the birth of his first grandchild, due in January.
It’s been well over 20 years since Timothy Horiuchi was a regular at the food truck while working on his graduate degree at Caltech in the 1990s. He’s now an associate professor at the University of Maryland.
He remembered Ernie’s truck as a culinary oasis.
“We ate there so frequently, maybe about anywhere from probably once a week up to like three, four times a week during the weekdays,” Horiuchi said. “We worked very long hours, and so it was a welcome break and we could get everybody to just socially go out and not talk about science for a moment. And he was always super friendly.”
Seeing Mercado’s photo alongside a retirement announcement “brought back a lot of memories,” he added.
“He was a legend,” Horiuchi said. “You can tell from the GoFundMe page.”