On a recent Sunday morning, we’re visiting Foxy Falafel, the falafel sandwich stand that Erica Strait, a personal chef and caterer, debuted in late May. From across the market we’re drawn in by a laughing customer, eyes on the blender in front of her, feverishly pedaling a stationary bike. Onlookers hesitantly approach the stand, ask what a falafel is (answer: a fritter made of ground, spiced chickpeas), and snatch up free samples. Amid the bustle, Strait is all business, slathering fresh pitas with a mild hummus, then filling them with cabbage and her signature crispy falafel. But when interacting with customers, she breaks into a big, welcoming smile.
Thanks to her upbringing, Strait became interested in food and its origins at an early age. “I grew up on a farm in South Dakota, so I was very close to where food comes from — growing it, eating from the garden, and raising animals that we would eat,” she says. “I grew up cooking in the kitchen with my mom and my grandma and have always been so interested in it.”
When Strait left home to attend college, she pursued a degree in mass communications. Following graduation, she found that a desk job just wasn’t her style. So she moved to New York City to attend the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, a holistic health school. “They basically give you the tools to be a counselor and to help other people with nutrition,” she says. While at the school, Strait attended a speech by Annemarie Colbin, founder of Manhattan-based culinary school Natural Gourmet Institute, and found herself fascinated by Colbin’s philosophy. “When I heard her speak, I was just so engaged — and I knew that this was the next step. So I went to the Natural Gourmet culinary school and completed the training there. It’s primarily based on a vegetarian-vegan diet, though we did some poultry, fish, and eggs. Basically it teaches how to heal with food, and how to cook for people with certain ailments and diseases… to use food instead of medicine.”
After culinary school, Strait met Israeli chef Einat Admony, the main inspiration for Foxy Falafel. “I learned how to make falafels from [her]. She has a very successful falafel restaurant, this really tiny place, called Taїm,” Strait says. “They’ve been declared the best falafel in New York City. She’s amazing.” For two years, Strait and Admony worked together in fine dining restaurants in New York City. The first was Odea, a Middle Eastern-Mediterranean tapas restaurant. “Odea was the first restaurant that I ever worked at,” Strait says. “It was really intricate and delicious, and it was just a really cool introduction for me into the restaurant industry.” From there, Strait followed Admony to open Ludo, a fine-dining restaurant that also featured Middle Eastern-Mediterranean flavors. (Both restaurants have since closed.)
In 2007, Strait moved to Minnesota to be nearer to her Minnesota-based siblings. Soon she became line cook at Spoonriver, a restaurant whose philosophy is similar to her own. “My food has always stayed in that organic, local [vein] – shopping at the farmers markets and being mindful of where your food comes from,” Strait says. “So Spoonriver really fit the bill for me and with my training in holistic health and at Natural Gourmet.”
While working at the restaurant, Strait met fellow chefs Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer (now of Chef Shack), both of whom proved to be big supporters of Strait’s falafel stand idea. “We’re just really good chef friends — we all share a love for travel and for food and for the street food thing. So they were my biggest cheerleaders in getting this started.”
Developing the products
The next step for Strait was deciding what products to sell. One was a no-brainer: a falafel sandwich. “I decided that I wanted to do my version of falafel because I ate falafel in Minneapolis and I haven’t been able to find anything like the falafel that I make.” Strait’s version resembles the bright green kind she learned to make from Admony, but a few aspects set it apart. First, the falafel comprises different herbs. Second, Strait sprouts the chickpeas to increase the nutrient value, boost the digestability, and create a light, fluffy falafel. On the side, she offers pickled onions and three sauces: Tunisian harissa, mint cucumber, and green tahini.
Kombucha, a fermented tea, was another product that Strait knew she wanted to offer. “The kombucha I’ve been brewing for a while now, and people love it. So that’s a given; I want to share that with everyone,” she says. “It’s something that complements the falafel sandwich, too.” Her version is a bit more mellow than others she’s tasted. “A lot of the kombuchas are really acidic, and I can’t even hardly drink them anymore. I have to cut them with juice or water.”
Thanks to some ingenuity, Strait also offers smoothies… with a twist. “I was reading about Hawaii, and they had a thing about smoothie bikes. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to do that!’ It’s perfect for Minneapolis. We’re the biking city. And everyone’s very eco-conscious.” Strait dug up her old bike, then she searched Craiglist for some used blenders. She brought the bike and blenders to one of her friends, who combined them to make a pedal-powered smoothie maker. And the gimmick has been a big hit at the farmers markets. “People love it,” Strait says. “Little kids walk by; they point and they want to ride it. Everyone wants to ride it. It’s perfect for farmers markets too — that vibe, that energy that’s going on.” The stand gives you $0.50 off your order if you pedal your own smoothie, and the vendors will even hold your falafel until you finish pedaling.
As the opening day of her first farmers market loomed, Strait was confident that she and her products were a good fit. “People are coming to the farmers market for the vibe, for the reason that it’s laid back and it’s fun,” she says. “I go to farmers markets all the time for my cooking, and it just fit me perfectly. I was like, ‘Duh, why am I not at the farmers market?’ I just love it.”
Finally, on a Sunday in late May, an anxious Strait was ready to open shop at the Kingfield Market in South Minneapolis. “I was super nervous, of course, just not knowing… There’s so many glitches that can happen when you’re using different equipment and you’re not sure of the power source. I was super confident in the food; I knew that was going to be fine. It was just the, ‘How is it going to look? How is it going to be set up? How is everything going to play out?’”
But the anxiety didn’t last long. “It went really well, and people loved it right away. I have people who came the first day and have been coming ever since, every weekend. They say that they’re addicted and they look forward to getting their falafel fix.” Since opening at Kingfield, Strait has also brought her stand to the Northeast and Uptown farmers markets.
In addition to the falafel, kombucha, and smoothies, there are some other products Strait would like to offer, such as a tabbouleh salad made healthier using quinoa. “Quinoa is the best thing for you — it’s got nine grams of protein in a cup. It’s one amino acid away from being a full protein — it’s amazing.”
Strait would also like to buy a variety of farmers market vegetables and turn them into pickled toppings for the falafel sandwich. “I think that would just be a fun thing. I do the pickled onions right now, but it’d be fun to expand that and do pickled beets and carrots.”
She’s also toying with the idea of offering a sabich, an Israeli breakfast sandwich. “It’s eggplant, hard-boiled egg, hummus, and cabbage in the pita, and then amba, which is a mango pickle sauce,” she says. “I crave that all the time, because it’s something that I’d get at Taїm when I was in New York City, and it’s so good that it’s like one of those things that hits all of your tastebuds. So I’m going to try and do that at the market, too, once all the markets are in full swing. Just maybe do 10 sandwiches, put it out there to see how it goes over. I think it’s something that could catch on, if you taste it.”
Passion for street food
Besides her weekly stand at the farmers markets, Strait is also passionate about bringing Minneapolis one step closer to supporting a street food culture similar to what she’s seen throughout the world. “I’ve been to the city council meetings for the street food to be passed in Minneapolis, and I just think that it’s something that we’re lacking,” she says. “I traveled to Thailand, Burma, and Nepal not this last winter but the winter before, and I just loved it. It was amazing — everything was street food, everything was cheap, everything was super duper tasty, unbelievable,” Strait says. Then, earlier this year, she visited Portland, where she was impressed with the vendors’ originality. “You could have a chicken guy, and another chicken guy, and then another chicken guy, but they’re all doing it different, they’re all making it their own. And each of their little food trailers has its own design and personality, and that’s what I love, because as a chef, our food is our creativity, and that’s a really great way for us to share our art with other people and also share our personality: ‘Hey, this is me. I love food, you love food; come try this.’ It’s making it fun and making it an experience for people.”
Another way Strait hopes to participate in street food culture is by investing in a Foxy Falafel truck. “I would love to be able to vend out of the truck, whether it be at the farmers market, in St. Paul, or hopefully in Minneapolis if they get everything worked out,” she says. “I’ve seen Carrie and Lisa [of Chef Shack] do it; I’ve worked with them in their truck, and it’s so much fun. I know that’s what I want — it’s the reason why I started this.” But for now, Strait is enjoying selling products from her stand. “I get to showcase some of my really good, strong dishes that I’m very passionate about, and it’s cool for me to be able to share that with people on a large scale. This allows me to interact and give people a taste of what my passion is.”
Foxy Falafel is at the Northeast Farmers Market Saturdays from 9am-1pm, the Kingfield Farmers Market Sundays from 8:30am-1pm, and the Uptown Farmers Market Sundays from 11am-5pm.