Wednesday, July 20, 9:50am, Portland Avenue S.
There’s a toaster oven on wheels headed north into downtown Minneapolis. A bulky brushed aluminum box bolted together with silver rivets.
Could this be some new food truck?
We catch up and pass on the driver’s side. No name on the door. No logo of any kind.
Aren’t these new food trucks supposed to be branded with a nicely designed logo and fancy, color-coordinated graphics with clever slogans advertising fresh, locally-sourced, organic street fare with a gourmet twist?
If this is a new food truck, it’s unlike any we’ve seen so far.
Wednesday, July 20, 12:15pm, 2nd Avenue S.
We spot the toaster oven parked under a Skyway. It’s definitely a food truck of some kind. From the passenger’s side a small red awning and service window are visible. There’s even a logo of sorts — an angular cartoon of a truck stop waitress like some unholy union between Flo and Vera from the television show “Alice” surrounded by the words “The Twisted Sister House of Hunger.”
A guy wearing shorts and a studded leather belt, with a piercing beneath his lower lip, stands outside the truck taking orders. Tattoos snake around his calf. With unveiled enthusiasm, he tells us this is only their second full week on the street.
A small hand-written, dry-erase menu on the side of the truck features deep-fried hot-dogs and “Polygamy sauce on demand.”
A truck that looks like a kitchen appliance? A front man unafraid to show off a little body modification? And polygamy sauce?
It comes to us that if we wanted to get an inside look at one of these food trucks, the Twisted Sister House of Hunger might be a good place to start.
Thursday, July 21, Tweet from @houseofhunger
“@Simplysteves thanks for letting us join the party! Had a great time, and would love to park with you again. You too @cupcakesonthego”
Monday, July 25, 1:20pm, 2nd Avenue S.
We scan a combined list of all the Twin Cities food truck tweets looking for the House of Hunger’s location today, and one thing becomes clear: Mobile food vendors have a seemingly endless love for one another. There’s an infectious camaraderie among them. Retweets, name checks, and backslaps litter their Twitter streams.
We approach the House of Hunger and notice a classic oval neon “Open” sign flashing in the front passenger window. A fitting addition to a truck that looks like a rolling 24-hour diner.
Owner Wesley Kaake (pronounced “cake”) pokes his head out the back door and offers a juicy bit of gossip. Word is a couple of food trucks were fined two-hundred bucks a pop this morning. The city says trucks can’t be on certain downtown streets before 10am, but there’s been some grappling over prime locations which has lead to more, shall we say, aggressive timeframes when it comes to claiming a spot. Some trucks are arriving up to thirty minutes early. Some trucks aren’t playing nice with others. But that’s a risky game of chicken. Fines double with every infraction. As it is, the House of Hunger arrived five minutes early. They were lucky to get off with a warning.
On Twitter the camaraderie seems genuine enough, but in the real world, where a parking spot can make you or break your business, camaraderie starts to resemble something closer to friendly competition.
“Yeah,” Kaake says, “It can get cutthroat out here.” But, he tells us, for the most part vendors work well together. Each has something different to offer. Kaake is genuinely excited that Simply Steve’s invited them to join a mobile truck gathering during Nicollet Mall Farmer’s Market Thursdays. The idea is to string as many different trucks as possible together in one location to create mass appeal. A sort of mall food court without the surrounding Baby Gaps and cell phone accessory kiosks.
Tuesday, July 26, 10:02am, 2nd Avenue S.
The House of Hunger rounds the corner and jerks to a stop in front of us.
Kaake slaps the obstruction license in the front window, hops down from the truck and drops orange cones at the front and back bumper.
Les Landey, Kaake’s best friend since childhood, scurries up a ladder to start the generator on top of the truck. A city bus– one of those monstrosities with the accordion bellows in the middle — blows by with enough force to send the truck rocking back and forth on its axles. For a moment it looks as though Landey might topple to his death. Seconds later the generator roars to life spewing a steady wall of white noise.
The guy with the tattoos shows up with two handfuls of plastic bags stuffed with today’s supply of buns. This is Cody Allen, Kaake’s partner going on four and a half years. Kaake takes the bags. “Cody’s our bun runner and Twitterer.” He also has the most legible handwriting of the group so he gets the job of lettering the daily menu. When he’s finished he’ll snap a picture and post it to Twitter along with their location.
Everyone has a job, and the core Twisted Sister crew of Kaake, Allen, and Landey go about their business intuitively with little need for conversation. It’s clear they’ve known each other for years. The fourth member of the crew, a kid hired out of culinary school, is eager but seems in need of the most direction.
The kitchen is the size of a walk-in closet. So we stand outside and watch through the back door as they prep for lunch. It’s a strange ballet. Four guys squeezing by each other, stepping over coolers, dodging a hot grill and deep frier, and slinging sharp metal cooking utensils around while the restaurant jostles and bounces beneath them.
In the midst of all this Kaake tells us he never wanted a mobile food truck.
“I didn’t want to be a carney. I had this image of a three-toothed man selling you a hot dog that’s been sitting in water for three days.”
But when his dream downtown Minneapolis doughnut shop hit one too many hurdles, his friends and family encouraged him to consider the idea. These new food trucks are not your average roach coach after all. Most serve up legitimate gourmet fare. And the folks running them seem to have decent dental hygiene.
He did some research on how much money one of these trucks could rake in and 24 hours later he and his friends were looking for a truck.
They found a used rig in Green Springs, OH. A nice couple were upgrading their mobile food business to a large trailer. The truck needed work, but when they saw the name painted on the side, they decided fate was telling them something. The couple agreed to let them use the name as long as they promised not to do business in Ohio. Kaake liked those terms, and the Minnesota branch of “The Twisted Sister House of Hunger” was born.
The first customer arrives a few minutes past eleven. A postal carrier. He orders a “Twisted Dog and fries.”
Landey reaches into a box overflowing with large potatoes, pulls one out, presses it through a potato slicer and drops it into a frier basket. One potato, one order of fries. No freezer necessary. Next, using the tip of a large knife, he etches a crosshatch pattern in the top of an Nathan’s all-beef hot dog and drops it into the grease. Kaake tells us that deep-fried dogs are more well-known on the east coast. They call them “rippers” because casing crackles and bursts open in the frier.
When we ask how deep-fried hot dogs fit in with this new generation of gourmet food trucks, Kaake shrugs. “We take some flak because we’re not gluten free, we’re not vegetarian, we’re not hippies, we’re not earthy. But we do make as much as we can homemade and from scratch.”
The dog comes out of the frier and the crosshatch pattern ends up looking vaguely like grill marks. Kaake nestles it in a bun that’s been buttered and browned on the grill, then adds cheddar cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and jalepeño-stuffed green olives.
Yeah, it’s a hot dog.
No, it hasn’t been sitting in water for three hours.
Wednesday, July 27, 8:00am, Midtown Global Market
We walk into a refrigerator the size of a loft apartment and weave through a maze of chain link fencing. Racks upon racks of vegetables and meats and cheeses and condiments are caged into separate cells, each secured with a chain and padlock. Like some kind of perishable prison.
Kaake and Allen open one of the smaller cages and start packing a cooler with food they need for the day.
Every mobile food vendor is required to work out of a commercial cooking facility. The House of Hunger uses Kitchen in the Market, a kitchen co-op in Midtown Global Market. As part of their arrangement, they get this small cold storage area in the basement.
Allen packs the polygamy sauce (which is still somewhat of mystery, but has something to do with Sriracha sauce and his Mormon upbringing in Utah). Meanwhile, Kaake tells us about the cooler with the enthusiasm of an I.T. guy listing the specs of a new rack-mount server system.
“This cooler will stay cold—at temperature—for five days at 90 degree weather, and these Cryopak ice blankets will actually hold that temperature for 24 hours on their own. Dandelion Kitchen gave us the idea. They swear by them.”
On the main floor, in the kitchen we pass a row of storage shelves piled with various ingredients and cooking tools. The shelves are labeled with the names of local catering businesses, bakeries, and chefs. Many are highly regarded names in the Twin Cities food scene. But we’re surprised to see a couple of competing mobile food vendors listed as well. Turns out the House of Hunger shares a cold storage with one of them.
More friendly competition.
Earlier as we talked with Kaake and Allen on the loading dock of Midtown Global, a delivery driver for a highly regarded local ethnic food vendor goes off on us, claiming we took a picture of “his chicken.” We reassure him we aren’t concerned with his poultry, we’re simply taking reference photos of the dock. But he only grows angrier and more threatening. Unfortunately, where there’s smoke there’s fire. And with some regret, we take note to avoid this vendor’s food in the future—especially the chicken. Kaake and Allen shuffle us away from the driver telling us he’s always this way—oddly confrontational and possessive of the dock. He’s such a problem, in fact, they typically opt to load the truck a block away in the secured lot where they park it just to avoid running into him.
But today they’re behind schedule.
They wheel their packed cooler into the dock staging area, and sneak a peek out the rear door to to see if the coast is clear. No sign of the driver. So they call Landey, who waits at the truck running the generator to get the refrigerator up to temperature. Moments later the truck backs into the dock. They load it, secure everything inside, jump in, and head off to find a spot downtown.
It’s ten minutes past ten. They’re in no danger of getting a fine. But they may have missed out on a prime location.
Saturday, July 30, Around midnight, Tweet from @houseofhunger
“Crazy weather and police out in front of our truck pulling guns on people…”
Saturday, August 6, 10:00am, Phone interview
Someone picks up after the fourth ring. There’s an awkward delay before a voice on the other end of the line croaks out a bleary “Hello?” If it’s Kaake, he sounds as though he’s been hit by a Mack truck. He says the crew had a long night, and he’s just woken up. We offer to call back a bit later. He takes us up on it.
Forty-five minutes later, Kaake answers with a voice more closely resembling his own. He apologizes for making us wait. By way of explanation, he tells us the House of Hunger has been working the late night downtown scene. Their menu of pulled-pork tacos, “slyders,” hot dogs and fries seems more suited than some other trucks for the bar crowd. “I can’t see someone stumbling out of the bar wanting a fresh deli sandwich with avocado,” says Kaake. But the results have been touch and go.
They’ve had some luck outside Sex World and Choice Gentlemen’s Club. Sex World offered to reserve them a parking spot on a regular basis. The bouncers have been nothing but supportive. A couple of dancers even attempted to flirt with them. (“I told them there are two gay guys and two straight guys in this truck,” Kaake laughs, “and right now you’re going after the wrong two.”)
But as night wears on, the scene can get a bit dicey. There are rumors that the area is a candidate for gunshot-sensing cameras and crime-deterring flood lights. A week ago, in another part of downtown, the House of Hunger found itself ricochet distance from the scene as police drew weapons and forced the occupants of a car face down onto the pavement. Just last night they had a run-in with a surly security guard on the dock at Midtown Global Market. This was followed by a confrontation with the irate owner of a car they called to have towed from their reserved parking spot at their apartment building. They ended up getting to bed at four in the morning. There may have been a nightcap or two before lights out.
All of which may explain the Mack truck voice.
All of which also confirms that running a food truck isn’t easy. Kaake tells us, from the start, nothing has gone as planned.
They bought a used truck to save money. A new custom built number could cost upwards of sixty grand. They were told that retrofitting their truck would take only a couple of weeks and minimal cash. Seven weeks and more than the cost of a new truck later the truck was finally ready to roll.
But the delay on the truck lead to delays getting their mobile vendor license. Which meant they couldn’t sell food. Which meant they had to pay rent on a kitchen they weren’t using.
And these hold-ups had far more devastating consequences. Kaake’s mom, one of his biggest supporters, never got to see her son turn on the neon open sign. Just two weeks before the truck opened for business, she passed away.
Kaake’s father has supported the House of Hunger by drawing money out of his retirement account. Kaake says he and the crew are basically not taking a paycheck opting instead to pour everything they have back into the business. Since we last saw them, they had to let the kid from culinary school go. It just wasn’t working out. Though he’s sure it was the right decision, Kaake is clearly broken up about it. “It definitely hasn’t been easy. There have been many sleepless nights, and many tears, and many moments where I just panic. Where I’m like, ‘Are we gonna make it?’”
Then there’s the impending long winter to think about. It’s tough to sell street food on streets covered with ice and lined with snow banks.
Yet as Kaake describes all these trials, there’s not an ounce of bitterness in his voice. He counters every obstacle with an almost unfathomable optimism.
As for their struggles with late nights, he confesses that pioneering the after-dark food truck scene has been a struggle, but jokes about installing bullet proof glass and kevlar shielding and forging on.
As for their used truck woes, he admits they could’ve done it another way, but believes the character of the truck and the adventure of doing it the way they did is something they’ll remember far more than having someone drive their truck up here and drop it at their front door.
As for the loss of his mom and the sleepless nights, he points out the support he gets from the people surrounding him—his partner, his closest friend, and his father.
And what about the impending long, cold winter? Kaake says they’re still formulating a plan, but they’ll have snow shovels ready.
There’s an authenticity and scrappiness to the crew of Twisted Sister House of Hunger. Their truck, with it’s industrial kitchen appliance aesthetic, is an embodiment of that spirit. They’re not out to be the next chef-driven, gourmet food truck darling. There are enough of those trucks to go around. You can’t throw a locally-sourced, farm-raised chicken without hitting one these days.
Besides, for every tofu wrap shouldn’t there be a Trailer Park’s Finest Dog with cheddar sauce and crunched chips? And for every house-made apricot mostarda spread shouldn’t there be a polygamy sauce?
Monday, August 8th, 11:38am, Email from Wesley Kaake
Two days after talking with Kaake, we send an email asking if the truck has a nickname.
In his reply he says he calls “her” Kathy. His mother’s name.
“Unless she acts up and then names just fly out that my mom probably wouldn’t like to hear. :)”