What a remarkable moment.
This process of building a truck, building a team, building a company, building a sustaining foundation has been going on for so long, it is a bit difficult to stop and recognize the moment that just happened.
This past weekend, New Flavors hosted Elias Dean at the Grand Forks Art on the Red event.
It was exactly the type of event we imagined rolling the truck, our new friends and new flavors and cultures into. An annual show, the Art on the Red (the name changed this year as the Public Arts Commission took over coordination) is the mark of Summer’s beginning.
Always a week or so after school lets out, it is a weekend with dozens of artists showcasing their work from around the nation in the city’s Town Square and Greenway. It is quality product with the personal touch of being able to chat with the producer. And the event includes music and other entertainment and … mobile food vendors.
Children with sticky purple fingers from grape ices and yellow mustaches from hand rolled corn dogs. Families with strollers, couples holding hands while arguing over which piece “works with” the living room set and a bright blue sky to frame the sea of tents and people. Americana. Norman Rockwell.
And in the middle of it all, a big yellow truck with a team of some of Grand Forks’ newest residents from Somalia cooking up a storm, reaching out to say “try me”, my culture, my food, me.
This was the big launch after a few successful test runs. And it exceeded expectations by all accounts. It was a lot of work, we’ll be clear about that. I hope it gets easier as we go along, but that’s for another post. What I will say is just how amazing my wife, Jessica, has been and was this weekend, specifically, as my strongest teammate. From troubleshooting logistics to great ideas and art on menu boards to the unselfish contribution of her time and acceptance of my time away, she’s amazing.
Our renter was Elias Dean and he has run a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks for about nine months. He has a strong following with the local Somali population but only a small, albeit fiercely loyal, non-Somali crowd. Elias and New Flavors share the goal to change that. He was our first trial renter due to his familiarity with the business side. We plan to provide a venue for those without an existing place so we can help them get into the food industry, but it made sense to start with a bit of an existing foundation.
Of course, what really helped was the food was fantastic. Elias is an excellent cook, as much or more so he is an entrepreneur and hard worker. (I do have to give a shout to Rafael as a total workhorse and a fun guy to be around – if you weren’t taking his pic!)
Elias was up at 3am Saturday prepping the salad and samosa. The chicken had already been marinating for two days. That is the norm, he says of Somali chicken. Two days bathing in marinade. He carefully constructed the 700 pieces of samosa by hand the night before and blended the special green sauce just before serving. He cares a lot about the quality of his food and works extremely hard to maintain his reputation for quality.
We have a motto for New Flavors: New Flavors, new friends. (It is SO much better than the unwieldy and awkward one I constructed with “food as social connector and economic opportunity”. Fit that on a bumper sticker! But we have an unwritten – until now – sub- motto: “NEW flavors, not BAD flavors.” We felt asking folks to experiment with new food and culture, particularly from a truck, was risky enough. We need to convey the truck is operated professionally and the food is well-prepared. That’s why our board made a menu discussion and tasting required before each event.
There was no problem with Elias’ food and his preparation, or his cleaning if the truck post-event. It is a high bar we will be setting for all our renters and working with them to meet.
The truck was active for 8 hours Saturday and another 6 Sunday. It was nestled next to a local favorite, Ground Round (for disclosure, Matt, the owner, is on our board) and across the way from a regional rib favorite. There was also lemonade stands and cheese curds and lots of corn dogs. Interestingly, there were also a few other interesting options including some delicious Thai.
In addition to the menu board, we included some background information on Elias, on Knight, Knight Cities Challenge and New Flavors and also on Somalia and Somali refugees.
At the Knight Cities Challenge convening last year, there were several golden takeaways. One of them came from a conversation with another winner who suggested to make sure we use every event to deliver not just a meal but a rich experience.
There were at least a few folks I noticed spending time to read parts of it. Strategically, we did post it on the opposite side of the menu board near he serving window. While waiting for your delicious, fresh made curry chicken wrap, Somali Chicken and rice plate or samosas, this content awaited you. Unfortunately, darn Elias had his game on in the back of the truck so wait time was limited. (I couldn’t convince him to slow down the preparation, of course.)
But those who read parts of it seemed genuinely interested in the background. One of the artists at the event stood for nearly ten minutes to take it all in. Yes, it really was that long. She left with a full plate of chicken, rice, salad and samosa. And a bit more, I believe.
Standing near the truck, it was common to hear passerbys exclaim to friends and family on the phone or shouted down the street – that happens quite a lot at these events – “they have Somali food!” Why, yes. Grand Forks does have Somali food. “What is it?”, someone would yell back and the attempt at an explanation would invariably conclude with a motion to join them in front of the menu board and serving window to see for themselves.
One of the comments Sunday morning that really struck me was they were hearing people talk about the food and specifically hearing the word “samosa” in conversations throughout the day. It kept catching the ears of this person like a growing wave or, as I thought, what a trending hashtag looks like in public life. The point was, it was a very small but tangible adoption of something new in our daily life. It wasn’t a campaign or rallying cry, a forced position or an argument. It was simply a casual usage of a previously unknown word in a familiar fashion. Familiar.
This will work.