By Jim Myers
Just as KFC superseded its original moniker, the San Antonio Taco Company south of campus has, for 35 years, been elevated to an acronym for Texas-style fajitas and buckets of beer.
Such longevity guarantees SATCO’s place in campus lore and the Vanderbilt psyche, especially for anyone who graduated after 1984. Given that the old brick and stucco house remains intact, loosely held together by old beer, paint and graffiti, SATCO will continue to be a stopping place for new students, for faculty and staff looking for a cheap lunch, and for alumni escaping to their past.
Started by Vanderbilt alumni Robin Delmer, BA’85, and Richard Patton, BS’84, both natives of San Antonio, SATCO began as one of those late-night, beer-fueled ideas that fill the heads of twenty-somethings.
“We were sitting at a place called Taco Cabana in San Antonio at about 2 in the morning,” says Delmer. “We were probably drunk—well, almost certainly drunk—and we started talking about how we really missed this kind of food in Nashville. That’s how it all started.”
Patton, who had graduated the previous May, says it was more than just a craving for home. “I needed a way to make a living.”
“We put a business plan together and went to our folks and said, ‘We think we can do this for $30,000. Will you give us each $15,000?’ ” says Delmer. “My dad said to me, ‘You know you guys are going to fall on your ass and it’s going to fail, but it’s going to be the best $15,000 I’ve ever spent for the education you’re going to get out of it.’”
It was a lot of work. Both founders spent countless hours behind the counter. “What we didn’t know, we learned quickly,” says Patton, adding, “I think we worked, literally, 450 days straight.” Delmer, who was still in school at the time, ended up dropping all his classes to run the restaurant that first year.
“Richard and I had a lot of arguments over whether we should do it San Antonio-style, which I liked, or tame it for a more ‘American palate,’ which is what we did. Richard was right,” admits Delmer.
Opening in the summer of 1984, in the little building behind where it is now located, SATCO took off quickly thanks to help from friends in the Vanderbilt Greek community. They quickly moved to the front of the building facing 21st Avenue, where they built, without permission, what is now one of the city’s most iconic decks.
“We had to convince someone in permits that we weren’t building a new deck. Richard somehow convinced them that we were raising an existing patio,” Delmer laughs.
Business really took off after a group of Texas expatriates on Music Row discovered this little place making homemade tortillas and hawking the taste of home.
“Steve Earle discovered us before we even had a sign, and he brought the music scene in. He’s the only person we ever gave credit to,” remembers Delmer. “Every month he would send a bill to MCA Records, and we crossed our fingers they were going to keep paying us.”
Delmer and Patton, who also opened Granite Falls down the street on Broadway, in a building that has since been razed, ended up selling SATCO to current owners Hunter Atkins, BA’71, and Sandy Haury, BA’72.
Robert Wilder has been the restaurant’s supervisor since the ownership change. He credits SATCO’s longevity to continuity, but the new sheriffs in town had some work to do. Joking about its San Antonio origins, Wilder says it was a bit of the Wild West when they took it over. “Let’s just say the (Metro) Beer Board told us we needed to clean up some things, or else.”
With almost 30 years under his belt, Wilder sees a lot of familiar faces who return year after year for the fall reunions, watching them as they look around and realize nothing has changed—not the layout, not the metal Mexican beer tables, and not the cramped bank of ordering pads.
“Nobody in town was doing that kind of ordering,” says Wilder of the remarkably efficient system where customers check off what they want and then hand the order to the cashier.
“Everything has changed around us, but we’re still here,” Wilder adds, pointing to where O’Charley’s and Burger King used to be. And yes, he remembers Betty, the “Burger King Lady,” well.
“She had the most thankless job in the world policing their parking lot, but she really was a sweet lady.”
As Nashville churns and grows, there’s always fear that SATCO will go the way of other icons like Mack’s Country Kitchen and Vandyland. Thankfully, for the legions of fans who crave the little fajitas, the salsa bar, and buckets of ice-cold beer to wash down the legendary queso dip, SATCO has a lease in place that should keep it there for at least 15 more years.
Jim Myers is a Nashville food and drink writer and former food columnist for The Tennessean newspaper.