Food truck scene
Passion, entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and great food
A few years ago, it might have been hard to imagine a time when some of the greatest meals to be had in this city would be devoured in various parking lots and on street corners. But duck liver mousse, pork belly tacos, meatball sandwiches and chorizo quesadillas are just a few of the delicious foods Fort Wayne loves to eat while standing up or, if you’re lucky, perched on a park bench.
This is a love story about passion, creativity, a hard-working and entrepreneurial spirit … and incredibly delicious food. This is the story of Fort Wayne’s modern food truck scene.
American street food has been around for quite some time, dating back to the 17th century when pushcarts served the working class. Chuck wagons prepared meals for early American settlers as they moved west in the 1800s, mobile canteens kept the country’s armed forces nourished into the 1950s and “roach coaches” continue to supply lunches to construction workers and late-night meals to third-shifters. More recently, as the economy took a turn for the worse, a new kind of food truck emerged, one that’s way more gourmet than its predecessors.
This mobile food trend has prompted insanely talented chefs and cooks, who have been previously confined to the standard restaurant business model, to buck the system and launch themselves rather than turning to a financial backer. Food trucks offer a realistic way to get on the scene without spending $1 million-plus to do so. New talent can be seen more quickly and generate money faster, due largely in part to our on-the-go and digitally connected society.
But the owner/operator has to hustle. Food truck businesses are small operations so operators must be both front and back of house – creative in the kitchen, but also business savvy. Operations are often run by just one or two people, with many owner/operators relying on family members to help out with shopping, cleaning, bookkeeping and marketing.
Foodie culture has taken hold across America and the mobile dining phenomenon right along with it. No longer strictly for high-end restaurants in metropolitan areas, haute cuisine is as sought after in Fort Wayne as anywhere. With the abundance of popular cooking shows on television, the preparation of foods of all kinds has become a national obsession. Americans want to be involved, are interested in the details and want to access these high quality, innovative meals.
A far cry from the “roach coaches” of the past, Fort Wayne’s gourmet food trucks not only deliver these goods but are accessible to key demographics at strategic locations like corporate parks and office buildings for the weekday lunch throng, regularly scheduled dinnertime rallies for busy families and outside beloved bars and clubs for late-night revelers. The truck owners diversify their businesses by booking gigs as de facto caterers, bringing the trucks to private events like graduations, birthday parties and corporate meetings or outings as well as teaming up with wineries and breweries for special events. One could even make the case that the trucks themselves have become the event, instead of just a quick meal on the way to somewhere else.
No matter the event or time of day, Fort Wayne’s food trucks have inspired a sense of community, a shared passion for great food. Today’s trucks can give customers everything they seek: real food that tastes great but isn’t wildly expensive, supports a small business, fosters a sense of community and is served up in a casual atmosphere that’s family friendly. Mobile dining can be a messy affair, but the weather, long wait lines and lack of seating don’t seem to bother customers because the food, and the experience, is worth it. While these gourmet food trucks may have started as a fad, at this point they’ve become a staple in the American culinary landscape. They’re not going anywhere. Rather, they’re not going away.
The current Fort Wayne food truck scene is vibrant and thriving. But just a scant three years ago, that wasn’t the case. On May 25, 2011, 19-year-old Bo Gonzales debuted his Bravas Hot Dog cart downtown. He knew he wanted to eventually operate a food truck, but first he wanted to test the waters with a small cart. There were challenging days that first year when only a single customer would walk up to purchase a soda – Gonzales considered it a success when he could sell six hot dogs in one day. Jerry Perez was next to hit the streets in July of 2012 when he opened Getaway Grille, a gourmet taco cart. Summer of 2012 also brought Affiné and Ragin’ Cajun, as well as the Bravas truck, and in 2013, Spicer’s, Rig-A-Tony’s and Sol Kitchen, sister truck to the Getaway Grill cart.
These local trucks are supported (and support each other) through the association Fort Wayne Food Trucks, Inc., a not-for-profit group that helps to organize calendars and special events as well as work in concert with the city and its interests. While the trucks are in competition with each other, that competition is certainly friendly and encouraging, says Gonzalez. He adds that having so many great trucks in town “keeps me on my toes, gives me motivation to always do my best.”
Andrew Smith, co-owner of Affiné, says, “We do better when there are more trucks to choose from. It’s more of an event when there are more options” for the customers. Dan Campbell, president of the association and the other co-owner of Affiné, credits local government including Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health personnel and the Downtown Improvement District, from permitting to truck inspections to event planning, for being accepting, encouraging and flexible, willing to work with these new businesses that have contributed to a flourishing downtown culture.
The association also gives kudos to the active and interested community that has sprung up around the food trucks and notes how beneficial the city’s strong social media culture was in its growth. Food trucks rely heavily on social networks to promote their whereabouts, the day’s menu and upcoming events. Social media also allows these small businesses to capitalize on “digital word of mouth,” because if their customers aren’t posting pictures of their latest creations on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, did it ever really exist?
John Maxwell, of Ragin’ Cajun, finds Fort Wayne diners to be “adventurous, willing to try new types and styles of foods that may not necessarily be in their comfort zone.” Jerry Perez, owner of Getaway Grill and Sol Kitchen, “always tries to enhance the flavor profile of my menus by offering familiar foods but elevated in quality and taste with interesting combinations.”
The trucks use top-grade ingredients, sourcing fresh and local when possible, and make most components from scratch, preparing the food in accordance with the Department of Health, in regulated commissaries. While each truck has at least a few signature dishes, owners said they all try to push themselves to evolve their menus and to encourage customers to try new items. Affiné switches up their offerings so often within a single day, their lunch and dinner menus are typically completely different.
Exciting things are in store. The association was approached by a tech company to serve as a guinea pig for an app that will allow users on iPhone and Android systems to access current locations, menus, upcoming events as well as offer pre-ordering and pre-payments – a feature many customers have been asking for. There’s still room in the market for cuisines like Greek, French and Indian (there have been whispers of a Vietnamese truck making its debut shortly). An all-dessert, all-organic or all-vegetarian truck could be down the road (too good a pun to pass up). Perhaps Fort Wayne will eventually have its own Taco Copter, tacos delivered by drones – an actual business (no lie) starting up in the San Francisco Bay area. More realistically, a mobile, full service gourmet espresso and coffee bar that makes daily rounds in neighborhoods and corporate parks would be a big hit. Imagine adults running out to a coffee truck, cash in hand, a mixture of joy and relief on their faces.
Another potential innovation on the horizon is a permanent food truck park with an established seating area, restrooms, bar area and stage for live performances that would feature a rotating lineup of local trucks. Some have suggested the park could be a winning riverside attraction.
WHO: Tony Fumarolo, inspired by his Italian grandmother’s recipes and fond childhood memories spent in her kitchen
MENU: Hearty Italian-American comfort food like meatball and Italian sausage hoagies, basil pesto pasta salad as well as desserts like funnel cake and pudding of the day
SIGNATURE: Chicky-Parm Sandwich is the crowd favorite and can be made spicy for no extra charge.
FUN FACT: “Rig-a-Regulars” should sign up for the “Not So Secret Discount Club” on www.rig-a-tonys.com for discounts and special offers.
WHO: Bo Gonzales, inspired by his Spanish father and regular family trips to the homeland, where he learned about authentic spices and techniques
MENU: Specialty wieners/sausages, the majority of which are handmade, with tacos and burgers on regular rotation
SIGNATURE: Patatas Bravas, triple fried potato chunks drizzled in handcrafted Bravas sauce, an authentic sauce from Spain and the inspiration point for his business. Bonus: comes with a sword!
FUN FACT: Bravas’ uber popular Burger Nights are celebrated events that draw a mob of people, willing to stand in long lines for extremely limited-edition creations.
WHO: John Maxwell, romantic about the culture and cuisine from Louisiana and loves that his customers trust him enough to give new menu items a try
MENU: Cajun and Creole classics, sourced directly from the Bayou
SIGNATURE: Blackened shrimp or steak tacos with truck-made cilantro-lime sauce and Creole-style Jambalaya, loaded with chicken and Andouille sausage
FUN FACT: The big red Ragin’ Cajun truck is emblazoned with the motto, “Laissez le bon temps rouler,” Cajun French for “Let the good times roll.”
Getaway Grill & Sol Kitchen
WHO: Jerry Perez, passionate food industry veteran, whose mission is to make sure people know Mexican cuisine is not just hot sauce and beer
MENU: Quesadillas and tacos feature a mélange of flavors inspired by travels in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Hawaii
SIGNATURE: Yucatan Shrimp Taco with jicama slaw, pineapple relish and house-made Shrimp Louie dressing
FUN FACT: Perez takes pride in handcrafting salsas and sauces and says a great molé sauce can take up to one week to produce properly.
WHO: Dan Campbell and Andrew Smith, who met while working in various roles at Joseph Decuis (Smith was sous-chef, then chef de cuisine)
MENU: Wide variety of gourmet meats sourced locally from Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange and high-end foodie delights such as goat liver mousse with pickled rhubarb
SIGNATURE: Banh Mi sandwiches, scrapple, fried green tomatoes and the popular Affiné fries, finished with sel gris and Sanbal aioli.
FUN FACT: Affiné (pronounced Ah-FEE-nay) is a term used to mean a particular cheese is perfectly aged. For Campbell and Smith, the word speaks to their belief that in the preparation of food, timing is everything.
WHO: Eric Spicer (with a name like that, he had no choice but to work in the food industry), gained fine dining experience while working at Hartley’s Place for 12 years.
MENU: Fresh burgers, breaded and grilled tenderloin, hand-cut fries, fresh hummus
SIGNATURE: Stilton cheese sauce and sweet onion bacon marmalade, in-house secret recipes, top the Spicer Burger and Spicer Fries.
FUN FACT: It’s a family affair for Spicer, whose parents, Carol and Paul, handle the accounting and office paperwork and most of the shopping, respectively.
*Fort Wayne Food Trucks, Inc. also includes Whip & Chill, Wise Guys Ice, Jimmy Ray’s BBQ and newest member Pizza Bomba.
Find the trucks at weekly rallies:
North Side: Tuesdays, 5-8 p.m. at North Christian Church, 5201 Camden Drive.
South Side: Wednesdays, 5-8 p.m. at Redeemer Lutheran Church, 202 W. Rudisill Blvd.
South West: Thursdays, 5-8 p.m. at Lucky Harley-Davidson, 6315 Illinois Road.
First appeared in the July 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.