Jesus Gonzalez enjoys life as a chef in the Athens Dining Hall.
During three years running his IP&J Cuban Food pop-up business, his cell phone never vibrated as he worked long days with little sleep, often with his 14-year-old son by his side.
Now at the Athens Dining Room, he still cooks the Cuban favorites that have won him a devoted following as well as many other traditional Southern dishes, but “my job is my job not my life”.
And her son is happy “that he can somehow take a break” from the food business.
Just opened in September by Frank and Annette Bickel, the Athens Lunchroom occupies the space that was the former Athens school cafeteria on Athens Walnut Hill Road. It is open weekdays for lunch and the second weekend of each month when the Athens School antiques exhibition and sale takes up the entire building.
Although Gonzalez, who is half Cuban, and Frank Bickel each have extensive experience in catering in central Kentucky, they had never worked together before this company. But timing was everything when they got together last summer.
Gonzalez had decided after quickly selling out the two days at Crave Food Festival last summer that he needed to make a change and decided to invest in a food truck to take his short-lived business to the next level.
Meanwhile, Bickel was looking for someone to run the kitchen of his new business and noticed IP&J and Gonzalez as he surveyed Lexington’s food social media scene. Gonzalez stood out and reached out to her. They tasted some food, got to know each other, and decided it was a partnership that could work.
“I liked the vibe I got from them,” Gonzalez said. He ditched his food truck plans and was happy to let someone else take care of the fundraising so he could focus on cooking. (“Having my own business for three years was great, but financing it was the hardest part,” Gonzalez said. He started IP&J with a $ 1,000 loan from his father, known as Papi, the “P” in the name.)
Bickel and Gonzalez decided to focus on attracting some of the hundreds of workers at the nearby Blue Sky Industrial Park to their dining room. “We’re just trying to give them a nice hot alternative to the normal drive-thru,” Bickel said.
That’s why speed – something Gonzalez learned well during his pop-up years – is a key part of their appeal. Whether it’s one of their Cubanos, ‘Frank’s lasagna’, beef burgers from neighboring Evans Mill Cattle Company, or one of the vegan options, they promise most. dishes will be hot and tasty in less than 10 minutes.
“So far it has worked,” Bickel said. They see people from the industrial park coming back regularly and “new faces every day”. Gonzalez said farm owners and workers nearby have also provided support. “There are a few families who come almost every day.
There is also the support of the many people who at one time or another have gone to school there. The school, built in 1927, was eventually replaced by the new Athens-Chilesburg School, which opened in 2006. Bickel said he was surprised and pleased with the number of former students who stopped by for lunch. A woman, he said, used her liquor license to celebrate her school days. “I had to order a glass of wine,” she told him, “because that’s the school I was going to. ”
For his part, Gonzalez is “surprised how much I enjoyed it”. He loves work, he loves people and he loves the hours. And he likes being able to make his phone vibrate.
Athens Dining Room
Or: 6270 Athens Walnut Hill Rd., Lexington, Ky.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. the second weekend of each month
To call: 859-263-8533
In line: athens-lunchroom.square.site