When Heirloom MKE owners, Pete and Jess Ignatiev, launched their food truck in September of 2020, they had no idea that it would change their lives for the better. In fact, running a food truck wasn’t even in their long-term plans. For two years prior, the couple had been working to open a restaurant of their own.
Pete – who had worked in the restaurant industry for almost 20 years – was rounding out a decade as executive chef for a rural supper club, where he was putting in 70-80 hour weeks. Meanwhile Jess, who’d given up her industry and retail jobs after she gave birth to the couples' daughter, had launched a new career as a portrait photographer.
“I had always loved the pace of the restaurant industry,” says Pete, “It felt natural, and cooking came easily. But I was definitely burned out. So, we decided that we really wanted to forge our own path, to create something for ourselves that aligned with our values.”
Almost a restaurant
That path was Heirloom, a restaurant built around seasonal, locally grown foods that was built, not only to offer guests an excellent dining experience, but also one that made a difference for the community.
“I grew up surrounded by local food,” Jess explains, “My parents were gardeners and they grew all sorts of heirloom vegetables. They saved their seeds and canned tomatoes every year. They also planted extra seeds to share plants with family, friends, and neighbors. There was much meaning and love behind it all... that it's part of what inspired the name."
“We’ve always believed in really getting to know farmers and where your food comes from,” Pete adds. “If you understand the process of how your food is produced, or how your cattle is treated, you can make better decisions.”
Jess says they also knew that they wanted a business that they could use to bolster other local businesses, support the local economy and operate in a way that reduced their carbon footprint.
“We didn’t want to be fearful of expressing our values,” she says. ”We wanted to have a business where we could be transparent and back up those values with actions. We wanted to be able to uplift other businesses, especially those owned by traditionally marginalized individuals and those that share the same values as we do.”
Best laid plans
By March of 2020, thanks to help from a local real estate broker, they had identified a location in Walker’s Point and were in negotiations to lease the space. And then… the pandemic hit.
“My heart sank,” Jess recalls. “But I also realized at that point that it just wasn’t the right time for us.”
Pete says he hadn’t even thought about the option of starting a food truck, but with some encouragement from Jess, they entertained the idea. By June, they’d made the decision to move forward. And by September, the rolled up to their first gig with a brand new truck designed by Sydney Michuda of Super Creative.
A different sort of food truck
From day one, Heirloom was a bit different, and it wasn’t just their mission. It was the chef-driven food they offered guests, which went well beyond the usual street fare.
From the get-go, there were options like creamy, scratch-made burrata stretched from Crave Brothers mozzarella curd paired with a fresh seasonal salad and grilled baguette. In the fall and winter, there was butternut squash, arugula, pomegranate, hazelnuts, honey, truffle oil and maple vinaigrette.
By late summer, the entire dish was new and featured heirloom tomatoes, arugula, basil pesto, reduced balsamic vinegar and truffle oil ($13).
Meanwhile, restaurant-worthy entrees include succulent PEI mussels steamed with wine and flavored with fresh cream and local herbs ($12) and braised beef ribs (once served with blackstrap molasses BBQ, jalapeño cheddar polenta and red cabbage slaw).
Currently, the shortribs are accompanied by a roasted jalapeno masa cake, black bean and red pepper slaw, chimichurri, lime crema and garnishes like pickled radish and onions, cilantro and microgreens ($16).
Come fall and winter, there is also a rotating selection of soups like autumnal sweet potato bisque with turmeric and ginger, topped with chili oil, pepitas and coconut honey creme (watch for that to come around again soon).
And all year round, you can get Heirloom’s sandwiches including fried chicken and hot dipped fried chicken ($12) and a burger that is truly worth the eating (it made my Top 5 to Try this week).
Meanwhile, hearty vegetarian options like the “Where’s the Beet” burger (housemade veggie patty, lettuce, tomato, onion, roasted garlic aioli ($12) and a tempeh reuben ($12) are equally as tasty as their meaty counterparts.
A whole new perspective
After running the food truck for over a year, the Ignatievs admit their perspectives – and their plans – have changed.
“We opened up this new door in our lives, and it brought us to this place where we’re really part of the Milwaukee community,” says Jess. “If you’d have asked us a year ago if we still wanted a brick and mortar restaurant, we would have said yes. But over time we’ve really grown to appreciate the flexibility of the truck, and the people we’ve gotten to know over time.’
“At this point, our focus has changed entirely,” she adds. “Maybe we’d want to establish a venue where we could run a bar and host events, private dinners. We’d also love to just buy a little farm in the area, raise eggs, have a garden and create a space there where we could do farm-to-table dinners.”
Jess beams as she talks about the possibilities that lie ahead, and Pete smiles in agreement.
“It pulls my heartstrings so much when I look at how great everyone has been to us.” she says. “Milwaukee doesn’t get enough credit… but the people here are great...
"Even despite the pandemic, we’ve had one of the best years of our lives. We’ve met so many great people and we’ve been able to support so many other local businesses. There’s nowhere we’d rather be.”
Get the schedule for Heirloom MKE and keep up with their ever-changing menu (plus special limited time burgers and chicken sandwiches) by following @heirloom.mke on Instagram, the Heirloom Facebook page or checking out their website.
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.