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If You Grill It, They Will Come

Hungry Wacoans and Baylor Students Continue to Build the Yaki Food Business

The cars that Jake Patterson (‘12) repaired may have run on gasoline, but he refueled with teriyaki.

In October 2016, the third-generation Baylor Bear moved to Portland, Oregon, with his college girlfriend (and now wife), Lindsay. He soon found a job working at an auto dealership. It didn’t take long for him to discover the ‘yaki food truck parked behind the lot, along with a newfound love for the cuisine.

“It was the only thing I could eat and still feel like I could go back to work a full day and not drag my feet. I just kind of single-handedly supported this food truck,” he remembered with a laugh.

Teriyaki as it is known today first originated during the 1700s in Japan, and refers to food that is grilled or broiled in a glaze traditionally composed of soy sauce, rice wine, and sugar. It wasn’t until 1976, however, that the first dedicated teriyaki restaurant in the United States opened — Toshi’s Teriyaki in Seattle, Washington. Over the next couple of decades, the cuisine’s popularity exploded around the region, particularly during the 1990s, and is today considered one of the area’s signature dishes. It was amidst this culinary landscape that Patterson found himself living, working, and most importantly, eating.

After some serious thought (and countless teriyaki lunches) Patterson decided to take a major leap—he quit his job at the dealership and transitioned into waiting at a fine dining establishment with very minimal experience in the field.

“I worked at Common Grounds for several years while I was a student at Baylor, but that was really the extent of my food experience,” he said.

From there, he began to learn the basics of what was needed to make his own spin on the centuries’ old cooking method.

Patterson and his wife returned to the Waco area in early March 2020, mere days before the onset of COVID-19. Still, society’s new, chaotic landscape didn’t prevent him from opening the Yaki food truck the following September. While Patterson concedes that opening a new business in the pandemic’s first months before a vaccine was “a terrifying experience,” he soon found an opportunity to band together with a fellow, precariously timed cocktail lounge that had recently opened up in downtown Waco. For nearly a year, the Yaki food truck largely stayed in (the also brand new) One Day Bar’s parking lot, serving up Texas-inspired spins on the delicious traditional Japanese dish for Baylor students, locals, and visitors.

“The cool thing about teriyaki is that it’s really the fundamentals of the kitchen—basic knife skills, safely cooking with charcoal. [It’s] all very approachable forms of cooking,” he said.

Yaki food truck’s stylings proved approachable in more ways than one. Within months, Patterson’s menu had developed a dedicated, regular following of fellow teriyaki lovers eager to sample the newest dishes and offerings. While an obvious attraction for local, hungry Baylor students, Yaki’s clientele comprises a much wider demographic.

“I would say it’s always been a mix,” he said. “There are students who found us early because they are Instagram-savvy.”

Patterson said the “bread and butter” of his business comes from catering events such as weddings, office gatherings, and birthdays. One of his favorite catering jobs is the time he served lunch to his grandparents’ entire retirement community. Still, the actual food truck foot traffic showed him that expansion was certainly possible.

On New Year’s Day 2022, Yaki opened its first drive-up, brick-and-mortar location in the renovated remains of an old Sonic Drive-In on Valley Mills Drive. Menu items include old-school fare with a twist, such as oak-smoked chicken, tuna poke, and vegetarian options alongside certified Texas staples, including pulled pork and fried chicken. Yaki even extends that creativity to its housemade sauces—spicy chili oil, classic teriyaki, honey mustard, and even their own take on salsa verde.

Unsurprisingly, the new location has been a hit, and while the original food truck has switched locations to near Waco’s Pinewood Coffee Shop, both spots continue to dish out delicious fare to hungry patrons almost daily. Equally unsurprising are Patterson’s plans for the future.

“If I’m being honest, the dreams are really big,” he said, revealing that the first brick-and-mortar location is only the first step towards much larger intentions. “There’s a lot of room to grow in Waco, but there’s a lot of room to grow outside of Waco, too. There are lots of little towns in Texas, smaller places that don’t have a lot of food options.”

Like the repurposed Sonic, Patterson explains that he sees potential in the countless empty fast-food buildings dotting the state’s roadsides—each one an opportunity to bring fresh, diverse, made-from-scratch dining options into a community. But whatever path Patterson’s burgeoning Yaki empire takes him down, he remains deeply indebted to these first formative years within both Waco and Baylor.

“I would give 100-percent credit to the Baylor network, the community within Waco, and the Baylor grads,” he said. “That’s very true of Wacoans in general: there’s definitely a deep pride in supporting small, local businesses.”

For now, at least, Patterson seems happy to continue growing and supporting the initial two locations. He mentions how excited he is that this fall semester will be the first Baylor football season with the brick-and-mortar address, and he looks forward to future opportunities to cook for the people he loves most. Patterson reveals that he’s been cooking over his restaurant’s Weber charcoal kettle grill the entire time he’s been talking.

“[This] is a good picture of who we are—we’re backyard grilling inside of a 1996 Sonic,” he said with another laugh. “I’m grilling every single piece of chicken going out right now. And I’m proud to do this. I like doing this.”

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