An outdoor taco counter that started during COVID-19 expands with indoor seating.
If you had to pick one word to describe the tiny town of Thomas, “intimate” might be the first that comes to mind. Tucked just a few miles from Canaan Valley and Blackwater Falls, its single block of downtown storefronts houses a small collection of cafes, shops, and galleries.
And at the very end, there’s Picnic, one of the coziest spots of them all. This little roadside food counter opened during the COVID-19 pandemic as a simple place folks could stop to order tacos to-go or enjoy in a grassy area near The Purple Fiddle, the town’s longtime hot spot for live music.
Picnic’s menu was small and its hours hit-or-miss, but that didn’t matter a lick. It quickly generated lots of buzz and rave reviews. And while part of its charm was its small size and simple setup, it wasn’t long before owner Yessi Alexander knew it could be something more.
So this past November, that small outdoor counter blossomed into a larger place where you can now enjoy that same delicious food, either indoors or out. And the story of how Alexander found herself here is one West Virginians have heard from so many others before.
She started working in restaurants when she was 15 years old, then spent 15 years as a professional musician. That gig took her all over, until she eventually realized she didn’t want to tour anymore. “I first visited friends here in West Virginia 17 years ago and completely fell in love with the place. I had been to places like Iceland and San Francisco, but they just weren’t for me,” Alexander says. “I would always come back here to write music because Tucker County is my favorite place in the world. This is it for me. I may not have been born in West Virginia, but it’s very much a part of my heart.”
So she decided to plant roots here and open her own restaurant. Her business partner at the time had experience cooking Caribbean food, so they created a small menu featuring items like tacos, plantains, and rice and beans. Those offerings eventually expanded to tacos, bowls, or quesadillas featuring your choice of different meats, veggies, and toppings. Next came breakfast tacos and burritos with eggs, sausage, and cheese, and then a Sunday brunch featuring treats like huevos rancheros, breakfast sandwiches, and French toast sticks.
At its core, the food is simple, fresh, and bursting with flavor.
“The beef we serve is raised locally, right down the hill here, and we have these carnitas that we slow-cook for 14 hours,” Alexander describes. She goes on to tease a house-made pickled slaw that has a little bite to it and a fresh avocado salsa that “just feels so fresh, so clean, so good for you” when you taste it. “The rice and beans are hearty and freaking awesome. The plantains are fried up, and you get a little sweet and a little salty with each bite. That’s a perfect meal that I’m so proud to serve, especially to a community that has welcomed me with open arms.”
Just as appealing as the food is Picnic’s casual, welcoming vibe. That was easy to accomplish when it was a simple to-go counter during the pandemic, offered at a time when people were craving connection in a safe setting. “You could meet people, spread out in the grass, have some tacos, and feel safe,” she says. “Just take a minute, take a breath, and honor each other as human beings for a hot second. That’s life right there.”
But what she’s even more proud of is that she’s been able to expand the restaurant while maintaining that same sense of intimacy.
“We haven’t lost that,” she says, the sense of pride unmistakable in her voice. “Even though we have more space, you still feel that sense of simplicity and sweetness. That’s so embedded, so ingrained in us that nothing has been lost in the expansion but all has been gained. Everything we’ve done—adding indoor seating, getting our liquor license, all of it—has been very intentional.”
That’s the same approach she’s taking to future plans to add an outdoor beer garden and turn the original food counter into a drink counter. “That little outdoor counter will always be an integral part of what we do,” she says.
Simple. Humble. Casual. Just like a good picnic should be.
80 East Avenue, Thomas, @picnicinthomas on FB