The food truck trend hit Milwaukee a number of years ago and has expanded with a vengeance.
Seemingly overnight, a widely varied fleet of sleek mobile eateries rolled in, offering a host of sweets and savories to consumers on the go. These days, the trend is still going strong and – among the bounty of choices – serious locavores now have at least two options from which they can procure local eats.
Jeff Steckel, a formally trained Le Cordon Bleu graduate, spent years teaching in both South Korea and Milwaukee Public Schools before pursuing his newly found passion as the owner of the Jeppa Joes food cart.
"My South Korean students had a hard time pronouncing Jeff, and my nickname soon became Jeppa," Steckel recalls. "My wife started calling me Jeppa Joe for fun, and the name became a natural choice for the food cart."
Steckel originally hails from Madison, where street food has been popular for about 20 years or so. Although he contemplated starting a food cart there almost 15 years ago, the idea never really materialized. But, then, he moved to Korea.
"What really inspired me were my travels in Asia," Steckel reflects. "There was such an abundance of great, cheap street food there, and it really got me thinking about opening a food cart."
That inspiration is reflected in Jeppa Joes' menu, which features international flavors like Korean BBQ beef, Jerk Chicken and Steckel's favorite, a Pork Banh Mi – featuring a crusty Sciortino's torpedo roll spread liberally with siracha mayo and piled high with Asian style caramelized pork, "house"-made pickled carrots and daikon, jalapenos, sliced cucumber and plenty of cilantro.
As a member of Braise RSA, Steckel is able to source his produce completely from local vendors. His menu focuses on what's fresh and seasonal, and his sandwiches reflect an emphasis on slow, carefully cooked meats and intensely flavored fare that gives a nod both to his travels and his love for unique flavor profiles.
"I became interested in local foods as a consumer before I ever became a chef," Steckel explains. "It is better for the environment, usually better for our bodies ... and I am generally anti-corporation. I think it is important to support local economies of all types, but with food it is especially important because of the way large corporations view and treat food."
Despite some initial challenges stemming from a gas leak in the Jeppa Joes cart, Steckel reports that business is going well. Consumers can find his truck parked regularly at various locations including Take-out Tuesday at Schlitz Park, Wednesdays at Catalano Square, Food Truck Thursdays at the Milwaukee County Courthouse and Red Arrow Park on Fridays. He plans to begin making appearances at the Cathedral Square farmers market beginning June 2.
In the future, he hopes to develop a small breakfast menu to entice market-goers. He'll also run daily or weekly specials that feature specific local ingredients.
"So far I have had great response and plenty of positive feedback, which is really encouraging," Steckel says. "Obviously I want to make money, but it is more important to me for people to understand what I am trying to do and to enjoy the results."
Kathy Papineau grew up scanning magazines like Better Homes and Gardens in search of tasty healthy recipes to feed her family of eight. In 2008, after being inspired by her work with Slow Food Southeast Wisconsin and Milwaukee's Victory Garden Initiative, she started a catering company called MKE Localicious, a full-service catering and party company with an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients.
"Since then, I've been educating myself about all the good reasons to eat local; from increased vitamins in the foods to less carbon emissions due to the lack of travel, and the economic sense it makes to support folks in our community."
She also cites her children as one of the reasons she believes so strongly in eating locally.
"They need to know what real food is, where it comes from, how to grow it, why it's good for them and that their health will be completely their responsibility when they get older," she says. "They need to be proactive. After all, God only knows what kind of health care system they may inherit."
Papineau started her food truck business as a means of diversification and a new revenue stream by which she could raise money for her own commercial kitchen. Her ever-changing seasonal menu features items made with locally procured cheese, Kewaskum bacon, chicken from Jeff and Kathy Preeder at Jeff-Leen Farm and eggs from Pampered Produce. She also shops regularly at the Fondy, West Allis, Cathedral Square and West Town farmers markets to gather up the freshest in local ingredients.
One of Localicious' most popular items is soup in a jar – $5 portions of soup served in reusable canning jars. Flavors include classics like cream of mushroom and chili, along with more adventurous varieties like curry carrot and cream of asparagus with parmesan. She plans to launch "pie in a jar" this summer – single-serving pies featuring fresh apples, peaches, pears and other seasonal fruits.
When asked about her favorite offerings, Papineau immediately recommends her curry carrot soup.
"A wicked amount of cilantro gets blended into the soup at the end. It's so good," she says. "In fall, I love to make this chicken salad with local apples and garlic. I mean I can make it now, but it's best in the fall with real apples from Burlington, Wis. rather than from New Zealand."
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.