Oklahoma Christian University alumnus Robby Vernon recently brought his own flair to the OKC metro restaurant scene.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” Vernon said. “It’s been an uphill from day one. This has been a labor of love and it all started about five years ago.”
After working in the food industry for 23 years, Vernon is now the owner and operator of Hacienda Tacos.
Vernon, alongside his twin brother, came to Oklahoma from Roswell, NM, in 1992 to play for the Oklahoma Christian’s soccer team. He graduated in 1997 with a bachelor’s in English and Pre-Law. Vernon returned to campus in 1998 to earn a Bachelor of Science in English education.
After graduating, he pursued a master’s in Creative Studies at the University of Central Oklahoma. The program required Vernon to write a thesis in one of five genres: poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, novel or short story. He ended up writing a full-feature film as his thesis to earn his third English degree.
“How does the restaurant work into all these English degrees?” Vernon said. “Simple, it doesn’t.”
Vernon said his start in the food industry began when a couple of his friends from the tennis team found work in the kitchen at a newly-built Chili’s on the Broadway Extension in Edmond.
“Once I finished my tenure in soccer, I really didn’t have anything to do,” Vernon said. “I was getting older and wanted to have a little more money so I ended up following my friends and getting a job at Chili’s working in their kitchen. I didn’t think it was going to lead to where I’m at now.”
Vernon said he began to tire of working in the kitchen, constantly smelling the burgers the restaurant produced and desired to wait tables instead. The manager turned him down, but as he drove home the same day he saw a new restaurant, Pepperoni Grill, with a sign saying “Now hiring.” Vernon went in, filled out an application and started waiting tables at the restaurant after accepting the job. After a couple of years at Pepperoni Grill, a friend of Vernon’s introduced him to La Baguette Bistro.
“I knew food could taste good, but I didn’t know food could taste quite that good,” Vernon said. “The meal threw me into a tailspin and I immediately wanted to meet the owner. A French guy named Michel Buthion came out, I shook his hand and asked if he had an application because I wanted to work there.”
According to Vernon, he filled out the application and followed up with Buthion every day for two weeks straight, calling him until eventually he realized how badly Vernon wanted to work there and asked him to come in the next day at 7:30 a.m. Vernon stayed with La Baguette for 19 years.
“The owner, Michel, ended up taking me underneath his wing,” Vernon said. “We ended up traveling all over the world together.”
Upon completion of his master’s degree, Vernon began working as the beverage director for the restaurant in the bottom of the Colcord hotel in downtown Oklahoma City. He was then promoted to food and beverage director, which put him in charge of the restaurant, bar, nightclub, catering and room service for the hotel.
“It was a big operation,” Vernon said. “I would not wish the hotel industry on anyone, but it was an invaluable experience to me.”
Vernon said while working at the Colcord he was able to meet rock stars like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ozzy Osbourne and Michael Bublé, as well as movie stars Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson.
“The coolest one I ever met was Ozzy Osbourne,” Vernon said. “I’d make him scones every morning. The movie stars stayed in the hotel for three months while filming ‘The Killer Inside Me,’ so they became like family. We ate breakfast together most mornings.”
Vernon said he quit the hotel business because working long hours took away from the time he could spend with his daughter. He went back to the restaurant business as a manager at Red Prime Steak in Oklahoma City.
“Eventually, all paths led back to La Baguette,” Vernon said. “Whenever I decided to make a career change again, I just wanted to go back and wait tables. I didn’t want to manage because I felt in my mind I wanted something more for me. I was too busy working so many hours making money for somebody else. I went back to La Baguette because I wanted to go home.”
Vernon said he worked nine to 10 consecutive months so he could take off four weeks and fly to Europe. While he was traveling, Vernon realized his three English degrees led him to become disheartened by his field of study and he no longer wanted to teach.
“The last trip I took to Serbia I figured it out,” Vernon said. “I’m a restaurant guy. Then, the dream came that I wanted to open my own restaurant. I would tell people and they would laugh.”
Vernon said some earnest praying helped bring him to a place where he could sit down, focus and write a business plan. After thinking through what type of restaurant he wanted, he thought about his New Mexico roots and not seeing red or green chilies offered on anybody’s menu — something Vernon has known for all his life.
After talks with Hacienda Taco’s co-owner, Bryan Neel, the two decided the restaurant needed to be a brick-and-mortar restaurant, even though they entertained the idea of a food truck early last year.
“Bryan was opening up one of his closets and a business card fell out and landed on his hand,” Vernon said. “It was the leasing agent for Northpark mall. After much negotiation, late talks and millions of paperwork later, we signed the lease for what used to be City Bites on June 22, 2016. Then we had to put everything in order.”
Vernon said he still cannot believe the restaurant came out the way it did. The owners worked from sun up to sun down every day doing everything from painting and stenciling to hand making the tables within the restaurant.
“The concept of the restaurant is we want to accommodate anyone who has a taste for something,” Vernon said. “There is Asian, Tex-Mex, Baja, street tacos and New Mexico-style food to fit anyone’s taste. It is all homemade, fresh, prepared with time and patience and very meticulously crafted, and that’s Hacienda Tacos.”
Hacienda Tacos is located inside of the Shoppes at Northpark, 12086 N. May Ave, in Oklahoma City. They are open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The menu includes quesadillas, tacos and burritos ranging in price from $3.95 to $ 9.95. The restaurant has a community table located beside the restaurant for a dozen patrons to enjoy as well as an outdoor patio for enjoying warmer weather.