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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

River City Resilience Series: Covington, Kentucky | OLLA Taqueria Gutierrez Is All About Family (Sponsored by Southbank Partners)

Photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters. 

by Robin Gee
Photos by Phil Armstrong


OLLA. Taqueria Gutierrez  (aka Olla Cov) | 302 W. MLK Blvd., Covington KY | Tuesday to Sunday, Thursday, 11am - 10pm | take out, dine in, outdoor seating | call (859) 261-6552

OLLA. Taqueria Gutierrez  (aka Olla Cov) | 302 W. MLK Blvd., Covington KY. 
Photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters. 

Sergio Gutierrez credits his father for both pushing and supporting him to take advantage of any opportunities that came along. Gutierrez is the owner of Olla Taqueria Gutierrez, or as it is known, Olla Cov, a new "Mexican street food" eatery in Covington. 

Sergio Gutierrez, owner of Olla Taqueria Gutierrez in Covington.
Photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters.

Word has spread quickly, especially on social media, that Olla Cov serves some of the best tacos and Mexican-inspired dishes around. The restaurant opened in June of this year, a challenge and a risk while the country was still dealing with a pandemic, yet Gutierrez said he was confident he could make it. "With big risk can come big rewards," he said.

His confidence comes with the support of his family and the community around him, he said. He also may have inherited his father’s "seize the day" attitude.

Olla Cov is not far from his father Claudio Gutierrez’ own, well-established Gutierrez Deli. The story of Olla Taqueria Gutierrez starts with the story of the deli, on the corner of 12th and Lee streets, about to celebrate 10 years in the city.

Photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters.

First, the store

They were living in Erlanger when Gutierrez’ father decided to move ahead on his goal to open a store featuring Mexican products. He was only two weeks away from moving the family to Lexington to pursue that dream when a friend steered him toward Covington. Sergio was in college at the time. He said he was skeptical but has always believed in his father.

"I look up to my dad, but at the time even I thought my dad was crazy opening up a store here. But we supported him...we moved right next to the store, and that’s when we really settled in. Covington became our home. We became part of the community, saw the potential we had, and so, we stayed here," he said.

After about a year at university, he decided to take a break and come home. He enrolled in Gateway College to pursue a business administration degree and returned to helping his father out with the store.

"Everything was tying in at the store with what I was learning at school. Things got easier and that made me get more engaged. I started seeing the potential in that."

He learned about a program through Covington’s nonprofit Center for Great Neighborhoods called FreshLo Chef Fellowship, a food oriented economic initiative funded by the Kresge Foundation.

"It was for people who want to open up a business with cooking...We were able to get our feet wet before making a decision...They had people teaching us skills, including the back of the business skills...I had in mind to open a spot with my dad, maybe renovate the store," he said.

Photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters.

Paying attention to community needs

While Gutierrez was building skills at school and in the Center’s program, he was also taking what he learned and applying it to the store. Early on, he said, they discovered that their plan to emphasize mostly Mexican products needed to be adjusted to fit the neighborhood.

"We found that our customers were from Central America, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. The majority were from Guatemala. Their products are similar, but they have different brands. So we ended up switching our business model from being all Mexican products to being the store for what the customers wanted."

After an unsuccessful attempt to sell sandwiches, he said, they decided to start selling something they knew — tacos. They bought a little griddle from Walmart and started making tacos in the deli space.

"Anytime somebody came in, we’d try to sell them a few tacos here and there. Then we started realizing, hey, we gotta keep doing this! It’s making us money...So we stopped doing the deli stuff and just started doing tacos. We’ve been doing tacos ever since," he said.

Photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters.

Dad’s advice pays off

Gutierrez completed the chef program and took an inspiring trip out to California. "I saw a lot of the street food vendors and thought, yeah, this is what I want to do...When I got back from the trip, the people from the Center asked if was I still looking for a building."

The Center owned a building that was being renovated to house a bagel shop, but construction was stalled, and the deal fell through. They offered Gutierrez the spot.

"At the time I was 22 or 23. I felt like I knew what I wanted to do, but at the same time I was like, I don’t know... I didn’t think I was ready for something with that big of an importance. I ran into my dad, and he said, opportunities like that don’t come around a lot, so when something like this comes, you gotta take it."

He went home and slept on it and decided to take his dad’s advice and move ahead. "I thank my dad for pushing me to do it...and also I thank school, friends, all the people who helped, especially the Center. One of the biggest things is that in Covington I have had the support of the community."

He is quick to mention that his endeavor is a family affair. He said he’s had a foundation of support not only from his father, but also from his uncle Benito, sister Evelyn and his father’s partner Courtney Case, the original crew behind Gutierrez Deli.  

Photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters.

Birria tacos and much much more

Gutierrez said he really enjoys the cooking and takes great pride in it. "The way I came up with the menu is to include everything I like to eat," he said. That means tacos and much more. A lot of places offer tacos, but he took that as a challenge to create something a notch up, better than the rest. 

"Really from the moment I started out of the gate, I thought I can do this better and better. I tried many recipes until I got the right recipe."

The most popular item on the menu are the tacos, specifically the birria taco. Birria is a spicy beef stew. "We slow cook that meat for five or six hours depending on how much we have," he said. "We started selling birria tacos at the store on Tuesdays. I think we were the first to offer it...That taco put me on the map."

Birria tacos. 

The second highest seller on the taco list, he said is adobada tacos, a marinated pork taco. Also popular on the taco list are shrimp and salmon tacos as well as both vegan and vegetarian options.


Shrimp tacos. 

Olla Cov is not all tacos. They serve chicken and beef dishes including burritos and carne asada. "Most restaurants serve meat that is so overcooked...We buy choice chuck steak and then marinate it for 24 hours. We grill it medium rare so the juices are released."

Photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters.


Mango margaritas. 

Sides on the menu include Guti fries, loaded french fries done the Mexican way with spicy mango, cilantro, onion, meat or veggie choice topped with cotija cheese and guacamole. Gutierrez says people love the guac and often come in to buy large quantities. He also serves elote, Mexican street corn, and maduros (fried plantains). 

Photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters.

From Mexico to Covington

Gutierrez was born in New Jersey but moved with is mother to Mexico after his parents divorced. He returned to the states when he was 10. "I’m actually really grateful how everything happened. I got to really experience where I come from, who I am, my roots. Growing up in Mexico, it’s a different lifestyle. It’s a beautiful place, but there are a lot of inconveniences. Here, I feel it’s hard not to be successful; there are a lot of resources."

Photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters.

The Gutierrez family is from Axulta Puebla, a small town in southeastern Mexico. They are not the only ones from their town in Covington. In fact, said Gutierrez, there are seven businesses owned by people from his town in the city including Taqueria Tapia on Pike, Taqueria San Miguel on Madison, the bakery La Rosa de Guadalupe near 19th and Greenup and another grocery only a few blocks from his family’s deli.

"Where we come from, if you see an opportunity, you take it. Opportunities like we have here, we don’t have back home. So when an opportunity comes up we take it and make the best of it...It makes me happy we are all here in an area nobody wanted to take the chance on, and now it’s the place to be," Gutierrez said. 
Carne asada. 

The place to be

Covington has indeed become the "place to be," with several new restaurants, commercial and residential projects across the city. Dan Hassart, communication manager for the city, said he is excited about all the developments underway and on the horizon.

In particular, Covington’s section of Riverfront Commons is a $6.5 million project known as Covington Plaza. Dedicated in June, it runs from Greenup Street to just west of the Madison Overlook and includes the former Covington Landing space. Features are a 1,350-seat amphitheater, as well as two concrete paths totaling 2,800 feet for pedestrians and bicyclists along the water’s edge and the floodwall murals. The paths link to the concrete path on the west side of RiverCenter.

Speaking of RiverCenter, one of the towers will be home to Protective Life Company. The finance and insurance company is investing more than $18 million to outfit 67,000 square feet in River Center 1. Even during the pandemic, Covington became home to a half dozen corporate or regional headquarters including Hilltop Basic Resources, Rumpke Waste & Recycling, First Financial Bancorp., Gentis Solutions, STEP CG. and M&M Service Station Equipment Specialist, Inc.

A host of other projects offer new opportunities for office and retail space throughout the city.

For Gutierrez, he is happy to be a part of the fabric of the city. "I tell my father, I really appreciate all he’s done and my whole family... My father pushed me to my limits, and I’m grateful for that... He sets the bar high. I’m also really grateful for the community supporting us. The Center for Great Neighborhoods gave me the opportunity to do something that was a dream of mine and my father’s...We are literally living the American dream." 

Photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters.

Check out more of the River City Resilience Series, Sponsored by Southbank Partners, exclusively  on Fort Thomas Matters:
River City Resilience: Galactic Chicken, Dayton KY
River City Resilience: Dari Bar, Silver Grove KY
River City Resilience: BB Riverboats, Newport KY
River City Resilience: Second Sight Spirits, Ludlow KY
River City Resilience: Nomad, Bellevue KY

 Photos by Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters 

About Southbank Partners 

Southbank Partners, Inc,, is a community and economic development organization that coordinates activity with the cities that lie along Northern Kentucky's bank of the Ohio River. Their purpose is to support the cities through promoting and coordinating development activities, fostering teamwork and collaboration, and providing a unified voice for the partner cities in advocating common positions to state and federal government, as well as to other communities. Members are: Bellevue, Covington, Dayton, Fort Thomas, Silver Grove, Ludlow and Newport. 

So many avocados. 

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