HARLAN, Ky. – A trip to the Kentucky State Fair changed everything for Ashley Bledsoe.
Bledsoe, who has worked at the Harlan Center off and on for more than six years, was visiting Taco Luchador, a Louisville-based eatery, during the state fair when an impromptu conversation in a hotel lobby Harlan Center Director Brandon Pennington turned into big dream that is now a reality, despite being packed into a 6×12 food trailer.
Meet Taco Holler.
“Brandon (Pennington) and I were just talking about the different kinds of tacos that were out there,” recalled Bledsoe. “Our conclusion was this: much like a sandwich, a taco can be just about anything as long as it is wrapped with a shell or tortilla. That led to a discussion of what kinds of tacos we could have in Harlan, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Moving Taco Holler from a dream to a reality wasn’t easy. Bledsoe knew that. She had worked in restaurants and fast-food establishments for most of her life.
“If doing a restaurant or a food trailer was easy, everyone would do it,” she said. “The food business is difficult. Success is only achieved by a small percentage of those who go into the business, but I think a lot of that is because the ones who are unsuccessful do not have passion for the food.”
Bledsoe has passion. The idea began to take shape when Southeast Community and Technical College and popular professor Robert Gipe wrote a grant to train students in the hospitality business and sought partners. The idea then was for Bledsoe to open a storefront. That didn’t work out.
“It was just a lot of investment, and we weren’t positioned to take on that kind of risk,” she said. “That’s when we shifted our concept to a food trailer.”
Bledsoe and her wife, Leslie Bledsoe, did an informal feasibility study of their concept at the Harlan County Farmers Market opening day last summer. They set up a tent and Taco Holler was officially a reality.
“The response was overwhelming,” Ashley recalled. “At that time, our trailer was being constructed, and we knew we were on to something. Dreams are a process. We created the process, and we believe in the process.”
That process is currently setting up one day a week. Ashley is doing this as she continues to work with the eventual goal of going full-fledged into the business. During this time, Taco Holler’s popularity has grown into catering events and even an unconventional path of being one of the region’s only suppliers on keto friendly products. They were also named New Business of the Year by the Harlan County Chamber of Commerce.
A keto diet is well known for being a low carb diet, where the body produces ketones in the liver to be used as energy. It’s referred to as many different names – ketogenic diet, low carb diet, and low carb high fat.
“Even in our taco business, we use fresh ingredients, including fresh vegetables and herbs from local producers in season,” Ashley explained. “We feel it is important to understand that food is a fuel for the body.”
The keto friendly products Ashley produces include mini cheesecakes, muffins, pound cakes, and even pizza crust. She also offers vegan and gluten-free options on her Taco Holler menu.
“We want to be inclusive and offer something for everyone who wishes to order our food,” said Ashley. “That’s important to us, and it is at the core of our business model. Our community is our family.”
Ashley has utilized the help of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Inc. (SOAR) Grassroots Partner the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP). Ashley met Ian Mooers, who serves as an economic and entrepreneur liaison at EKCEP. He assisted in connecting her with social media marketing training. Mooers also helped connect her with the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development (MACED), a Blueprint Partner of SOAR.
“These connections have helped establish my business in the digital world,” said Ashley. “I’ve been able to use creative marketing strategies to push and sell my products and reach new customers.”
Where does Ashley see her business in five years?
She dreams of opening a storefront restaurant and even a second location that produces keto-friendly, vegan and gluten-free products.
“I think we have something special,” she said. “It’s something that I believe will grow over time, and I am excited to have so many organizations helping me connect the dots to build a future for me and my family.”