Bun Me is a playfully-worded banh mi sandwich cart operated by Alex Palm and Matt Bettime. They've been hitting a lot of street corners all around Milwaukee this summer, serving up sandwiches, chips and soda, and garnering a lot of attention.
Banh mi is Vietnamese for bread – all types of bread – but also refers specifically to Vietnamese sandwiches made with light rolls.
"Milwaukee doesn't have a Vietnamese bakery, so we use bolillo bread instead, which is textually similar. We get them fresh from a great little place," says Bettime.
Bolillo is a variation of baguette, as is banh mi, but originates in Mexico.
Bun Me's menu is simple: chicken or vegetarian banh mi with either lemongrass or peanut sauce (or both) for $5 and caramelized pork belly sandwiches for $6.
Palm tells customers that the pork belly is "pretty intense," and Bettime adds that it's "candied bacon."
The Bun Me partners played around with a lot of different meat substitutes during their development phase, including making their own seitan, and have now settled on a textured soy protein for their vegetarian sandwich.
The chicken is grilled and placed in a season stock.
Customers can also grab a Red Bull for $3, a selection of Coke products, water and chips or pretzels for $1.
Bettime, who's been a vegetarian for 20 years, suggested pairing the Krunchers jalapeño kettle chips with the vegetarian sandwich, which was indeed a spicy and delicious combo.
Like most banh mi sandwiches, the vegetarian was topped with cilantro, candied and shredded carrots, peppers and a huge pickle as long as the bun was placed on top. Garnished with lime with a Coke on the side and it was a great, filling meal.
The Bun Me cart is out as early as 6 a.m. most days and as late as 3 a.m., 3:30 a.m. on Friday nights.
Over the last three weeks, Palm and Bettime had their sandwich cart on the Brady Street and North Avenue bar strips, in the Third Ward and Downtown, namely on Wisconsin Avenue in front of the U.S. Bank building, which may become a regular destination.
They tried the Marquette area at dinnertime and might try a UWM location soon.
The Bun Me cart is currently on the corner of Water and Buffalo Streets in the Third Ward twice a week. Bettime and Palm are working out other locations.
They update followers on social media where they'll be the day before (see below).
The Bun Me operators would like to be seen as part of legitimizing the burgeoning food cart scene in Milwaukee; neither of the owners can think of a reason why Milwaukee can't be a part of this nationwide food movement. And particularly with banh mi, which is already popular in a number of cities.
Unlike some street food, Palm says banh mi sandwiches are "legitimately healthy" and that folks will still feel great in the morning after eating one.
"We've had banh mi in Portland, Chicago and New York, but we haven't really found these in Milwaukee," says Bettime. "But there is one place south of the airport you can also get these." (That's at Banh Mi Nhu Y, 5455 S. 27 St., in Greenfield)
Bettime and Palm, who met through mutual friends a few years ago, took a road trip to the east coast and joked about starting a food cart.
"The food cart business is the cheapest possible way to start up a business serving food," says Bettime.
On the way back to Wisconsin, and after sampling a lot of fare from East Coast street vendors, the two were actively hashing out their business plan. They thought with a enough research once they got back that they could make Bun Me a reality.
"And then we thought we were missing something, because it suddenly seemed too easy," says Bettime. "But we knew we could totally do this."
Palm says the partners have a good combined skill set.
"I'm the cook and the handsome one and Matt does everything else," he says.
Business has been brisk and the Bun Me operators are happy so far. They say that word-of-mouth has been amazing. While this author was visiting the Bun Me cart, a worker from the bank building approached, saying Jennifer on the 7th floor referred her.
"One guy came back and said, 'Whatever you gave me last week was the best thing I ever had,'" says Bettime.
The business partners enjoy the immediate feedback from customers that comes with serving food on the street.
When asked about mustard in the sauces (of which there was plenty) because of a customer's allergy, Palm researched mustard allergies later that day and changed one of his recipes to not include mustard.
"With no loss in quality at all," he says.
The two continually ask people what questions they have, explaining their product to some while slicing bread, making sandwiches and exchanging money with others.
Both Bettime and Palm grew up in and around Milwaukee. Bettime, who says he's in the "process of prettying up the cart," attended the Maryland Institute College of Art, earning a painting degree, and later worked at Whole Foods in Baltimore.
"I ended up being their IT guy and worked with all the managers a lot, which has helped me work in a small business setting," he says.
Palm attended high school and college in Milwaukee as well as the culinary arts program at MATC. He's taking a break from the kitchen, where he has four years experience in restaurants around the city, even though running the food cart with Bettime is similar work.
"I just wanted a change of pace. It's been refreshing," say Palm, who is planning a return to college for business and economics this fall. "School happens in the winter, the cart in the summer. I think this will work; we don't need to move a lot of sandwiches to be successful."
Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.