Ernie Mercado spent 34 years serving flavorful Mexican street fare to a crew of Caltech customers. Yet the 71-year-old proprietor of Ernie’s Al Fresco food truck needed only a day to decide that he wanted a new title: retiree.
Mercado remembers the moment. On October 8, 2020, a little after 1 a.m., he awoke and was filled with certainty that it was time to shutter his business. He drove onto campus later that morning, sad but sure about his decision. Mercado was quiet about his retirement plans until the following Friday morning, when he handed out copies of a farewell letter.
The news spread quickly through texts, messaging apps, and email, and, by lunchtime, a large, socially distanced group had gathered near his truck. The turnout surprised Mercado. Long lines had disappeared when the pandemic forced the Caltech community to learn and work from home or have staggered shifts in the labs.
It is easy to imagine a bigger send-off if the campus had been open, but Mercado has no regrets.
“It was destined to happen this way because it makes saying good-bye less painful,” Mercado says. “I saw my daughter in each and every one of the students and I came to love them, too. I will remember their faces, their smiles.”
Since his food truck rolled onto campus in 1986, Mercado’s business has hit a sweet spot with graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. For less than $10, a delicious, calorie-dense meal could power young scientists and engineers through their studies and research. Indulging in an oversized Mucho Macho Burrito, a JAWS hamburger, or a potato quesadilla topped with spicy Painful Green salsa was one part of the experience. Customers were loyal to Mercado because they liked him. He greeted them with familial words of affection-—primo and mija. He also shared updates about his daughter Cristina, who was in graduate school, quipped about his love of tequila, and cheered up those who were trying to brush off failed lab experiments.
Postdoctoral scholar Ivo Ros and fellow researchers in the lab of Michael Dickinson, the Esther M. and Abe M. Zarem Professor of Bioengineering and Aeronautics, were regular customers and considered Mercado a friend. To show their appreciation, Ros created an online fundraising page and lab members shared the link with friends and on social media.
In 19 hours the fundraiser surpassed its $2,000 target. By December, 725 people had donated $35,662 and left more than 100 heartfelt comments. Mercado shared the donations with four Ernie’s Al Fresco workers, including cook Lucy.
Today, Mercado’s life has a different rhythm. He and his wife, Graciela, babysit their first grandchild, who was born in January. The couple also hopes to go on extended vacations to France and Mexico.
Before he boards a plane, Mercado plans to visit Caltech. He will not be in his truck—he already gave it to his brother—but he will be searching for his longtime customers.
“Someday, when things get back to normal, we’ll get together and drink some tequila,” he says.
Techer asked Ernie to share a favorite recipe as a farewell to Caltech, but naturally Ernie doesn't cook by the book. Besides, he knows how Techers love a challenge, so here it is—the Before and After photos of the Nopales Salad. Study the photos and create your own recipe. Send your recipes and photos of the final feast to email@example.com. The Techer Taste Kitchen will try them out and report the tastiest and most interesting results.
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