By Bryan Kloster and Emily Spanyer
Muchacho Alegre, a new Mexican restaurant past Hull’s Drive-In on North Lee Highway, has taken the place of previous student breakfast staple Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House.
Aunt Sarah’s closed at the beginning of the year, and Muchacho Alegre, which means “happy boy” in Spanish, moved in a few months later.
The restaurant is owned by Marco Garcia, who moved to Roanoke from Mexico in 1996 and has since moved to Buchanan. He currently has 10 full-time employees and three part-time employees. Garcia leases the building.
Muchacho Alegre is the third Mexican restaurant in the Rockbridge area. The National Restaurant Association says Mexican restaurants constitute a $52 billion a year segment of the restaurant industry, posting a growth rate of about 8 percent.
Garcia originally planned to open the restaurant with a few friends, but when they backed out, Garcia opened it himself. After only three weeks of operation, he has hosted a large crowd of students and locals.
Garcia has seen a lot of traffic throughout the week but has noticed that most of his clientele comes from the three hotels surrounding the restaurant—Days Inn, Howard Johnson and Quality Inn. These customers like the convenience of not having to drive several miles into Lexington, and having easy access to the highway, according to Garcia. He also has noticed big after-church crowds on Sundays.
The restaurant has a liquor license and a full bar. It offers the usual variety of Mexican dishes, including burritos, fajitas, chips and queso and tacos at prices lower than other area Mexican restaurants. There are also plans for hosting events in the restaurant and for catering and buffet-style events. If the restaurant is successful, Garcia hopes to open two or three more locations in the area.
Muchacho Alegre is at least the third Mexican restaurant to open in Rockbridge County in the past 10 years. Two Don Tequilas locations, one in Lexington and one in Buena Vista, are well established, and with the area’s limited population, a third restaurant of the same cuisine may seem overkill.
This increase in Mexican restaurants reflects a growing number of Hispanic and Latinos in the county. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000, only 293 citizens in the Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County area identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino. In 2011, that number more than doubled to 670.
Specifically, the Mexican population has grown even more. In 2000, the Census Bureau reported 107 Mexican members in the Lexington, Buena Vista, and Rockbridge County area. This number more than tripled to 355, in 2011.
Garcia, too, has noticed this increase since the opening of his restaurant. “I don’t know how many, but the Hispanic population in Lexington seems to be going up. I see new people every weekend here,” he said.
The census numbers in the area follow a national trend. According to the 2000 census, there were 35.5 million Hispanics and Latinos in the United States, or 12.5 percent of the population identified as Hispanic or Latino. In 2011, this number increased to 50.5 million people, or 16.3 percent of the population. This growth rate is especially noteworthy when compared to the African American population in the United States in 2000 and 2011 that calculated 36.4 million and 42 million who identify as black or African American, or 12 percent and 13.6 percent of the population, respectively.