Big Red Food Truck is Crowd Pleaser For Hungry Patrons
By Aaron Putze, APR, Iowa Soybean Association
Food trucks have burst onto the scene serving up menu offerings as diverse as the venues you’ll find them at. And that holds true in central Iowa, where you’ll find a variety of tempting options to suit the most varied taste buds.
Among the most popular and successful is The Big Red Food Truck. Proprietors Shon and Julie Bruellman of Polk City are known for their unique and tasty offerings. The menu includes their famous fish taco (a fresh breaded whole walleye fillet nestled in fried flatbread and garnished with fresh-made cabbage slaw, shredded cheese and topped with a chipotle aoili), a jumbo beef taco boat (think “walking taco”.... but with an attitude!), Grilled Philly Chicken’s with green peppers, onions, mushrooms and muenster cheese, their signature item “Shon’s Famous Fried Taco” and mouth-watering cheese burgers served with fries and fresh-squeezed lemonade.
If you want to know where you can find the Big Red Food Truck, just look for the long lines. Seriously. Or, track its whereabouts at www.thebigredfoodtruck.com and via Facebook.
The Iowa Food & Family Project met up with Shon earlier this week as he prepared to meet, greet and serve patrons April 29-30 at Cowles Commons in conjunction with Garth Brooks’ six-performance run. Our conversation was as flavorful as his cuisine!
Aaron: What brought you to Des Moines?
Shon: “Opportunity”..... or so we thought. Julie and I were living in West Bend, Iowa (a 120-mile drive north from Des Moines) where we had just become empty nesters and felt that we needed to make some pretty drastic changes in life. I was helping raise hogs in the area but knew we were in a rut and the only difference between that and a grave is the depth. Our oldest son Andrew was working in Des Moines as a real estate agent and in 2014 we made the big decision to head south. I wanted to dip my toe into the real estate pond as well, along with my wife who was in real estate already. However, we soon realized that real estate work was not going to be a long-term option for us because our hearts were just not in it.
Try, ‘what not?’ Over the course of nine months I delivered freezers and refrigerators for a home delivery trucking company, dabbled in doing epoxy garage coating systems, released a book that I co-authored with a friend of mine, considered becoming an in-home caterer, and even spent some time as a line chef at an upscale local eatery. It was there that I quickly realized that I needed to get back into the food industry as a sole proprietor, and the best way to do that was with a food truck/catering business. I have done nearly every job under the sun but still couldn’t find that thing that was a good fit. At the end of the day it was my love of cooking, and the joy that I found feeding people that drew me to the idea of operating a food truck. Some people use a food truck as a stepping stone to open a restaurant but I used my past restaurant experience to establish a food truck. I like the flexibility to be able to go where the people are, freedom and autonomy to pick and choose events to service and what menu items to carry.
Tell me about the origins of The Big Red Food Truck
It started in 2015 with The Little Red Food Truck. It was truth in advertising at its finest. The truck was 14-foot long, bumper to bumper. If I stood on my tiptoes or stretched out my arms I was sure to touch the ceiling and two side walls at the same time. The funny part is that I bought and started fabricating The Little Red Food Truck before food trucks had been approved by the Des Moines City Council. Oops. I literally was prepared to open my window as a food truck when I heard a blip on the news that the council had legalized food trucks for operation in the city. Sweet! It was a God-thing because I suddenly had a jump-start on the competition and was one of the first trucks out of the gate.
How did The Little Red Food Truck grow up?
In November 2015 I sold the first truck to a guy from Denver. I was looking to buy a new truck that was ready to go but I found they were hard to come by, very expensive and not well made. I opted to start from scratch and crossed paths with a great local truck builder. Terry Newton with Metal Masters out of Mitchellville literally built The Big Red Food Truck in a matter of weeks and I couldn't be happier with it.
Do you remember your first gig?
I’ll never forget it. We were at Des Moines City Hall and fed like....10 people in two hours and the day nearly ended in disaster. I didn't have an actual fryer at the time, just an open burner under a pot of oil that I used to fry my tacos. I was on my way home and the driver I was trailing on the Interstate suddenly came to a complete stop. And I did, too. In an instant, the oil came splashing out of the pot and drenched everything in hot oil. And my very expensive dough press came bouncing down the truck alley coming to a rest at my feet. Thankfully it was not seriously damaged but the thought did cross my mind as I was wiping up all the oil later that day, 'What in the world are you thinking?’ But we went out on day two and just kept plugging along.
What do you enjoy most about the business?
It can be a lucrative business but honestly, what gets me excited is the challenges of figuring out what people want so I can provide it. First and foremost, this is a marketing business, not a food business. People eat with their eyes before their mouths. So how do I get people who have never heard of us to come to our truck at an event or a fair?
I also appreciate that this is a ‘high risk/high reward’ business. To get a well-equipped truck you can spend $100,000 pretty easy. Event fees can be as high as $2,000 per day and one little hiccup or equipment malfunction can costs you thousands of dollars in lost revenue. It’s not a business that is for everybody.
Tell me about the pace of operating a food truck?
Being successful in this industry is a process. It's similar to many other businesses but there’s one big difference and that is the results of your actions are immediate. If something doesn't work, you need to make changes and at times, that means you do so on the fly. There are foods we once offered but don't anymore because they take too long to prepare or you don’t have the consistency you want or they’re not what customers want. At the bigger events, we attend our goal is to serve a customer every 20-30 seconds with a fresh, made-to-order entree. We’re confident that (for the most part) we can deliver on that goal and we’re proud of that level of service.
Who’s operating the truck when it’s open for business?
My wife Julie, myself, and our son Andrew primarily operate the business, and our middle son Tanner and his fiancée, Mary help out when they can. Again, just like farming, our food truck is very much a family affair. Yes, there are times when things are humming right along and we’re all a bit on edge from being pushed to our limits that we have to stop, smile and tell customers “we’re all family in here” -- because there are ways we, well, ‘communicate’ with one another as a family that we wouldn't as employer and employee! But it goes without saying that running a food truck can be highly stressful when you’re working in such close proximity – you have 10 food orders being filled at once and a line of 20 at the window waiting to order. For hours on end at times.
Any new menu items appearing soon?
For the most part we like to keep the same menu in place but I also enjoy experimenting. I’ve done roast pork on grilled flatbread with an infused Asian BBQ sauce served with cabbage slaw that's gone over really well when we serve it. We’re considering some other options, too, including a seasoned tofu taco and also a tofu salad.
Where has The Big Red Food Truck appeared?
We did the first Legion of Food “Food Truck Showdown” in Des Moines last year and are looking forward to the second this summer and the nearly 20,000 people they’re expecting. We’ve also served at Cowles Commons during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in March. Recently, we were the food truck on a movie set for a week with Matt Damon near Omaha and have had a presence at Des Moines Area Community College since last fall. You’ll also find us at the Polk City town square from time to time and we’re doing the first two days of this weekend’s Garth Brooks concert. We’ll also be at the Tree Town Music Festival in Forest City May 26-29 along with many other events coming up later in the year.
Where do you purchase your ingredients?
Everything is sourced locally from area grocery stores and supermarkets. Our ingredient list, for the most part, is all very basic. Some of our menu items may sound complex but I keep recipes simple and we try to do them right. And I think that's part of our success. “We make simple food that’s good”. It's also why our service is fast.
Do food trucks have an image problem?
Perhaps, but it’s changing as people become more familiar with the concept and enjoy what we do. We take pride in running a clean and pleasant truck that looks nice. We also want people to be comfortable with what we do and how we do it. That’s why we installed a 6-foot wide window so people can observe how we prepare and serve their food. I want them to see what I do. I want them to come into our world. I want to interact with the customer and do it as often as possible. We’re just simple people trying to provide good quality food to our customers and do it in a way that gives them a good experience. In those ways, we have a lot in common with farmers – the people who grow the food we all enjoy.
Favorite restaurant to dine at?
I really enjoy Texas Roadhouse. But Perkins also serves really good comfort food that’s reasonably priced. Oh, and Taco Bell. (Can I say that?)
Who inspired you to be a chef?
My mother Verda. That’s where I trace my interest in food and cooking. Growing up, I really enjoyed good food. With that came a desire to know how to prepare it the best way possible.
Most memorable aspect of your time operating a food truck?
If you’re looking for a specific event or moment I’d have to say it was when we were feeding the homeless one time in downtown Des Moines at an event with Homeless Connect where one customer said with tears in his eyes: 'Thank you for making us feel like humans again.’ But beyond that I’d say it was the stress of getting started once we decided to get the new truck. From the beginning the mantra was ‘Go Big Or Go Home.’ We had tried the small truck as a way of testing the waters and knew it would work but with the second one I was leveraged to the hilt because in this industry ‘Going Big...’ tends to be quite expensive. South Story Bank & Trust in Huxley gave us a loan to buy our second food truck when no one else would. They looked at the same information as every other bank did but they bought into the vision and said, ‘You know what, we're on board with you.’ That meant a lot to us because without that we’d probably not be talking today. They didn’t give us a loan, they gave us a life.
Your faith is important to you. How has it played a role with your business?
My faith in Jesus Christ and what He has done for me really is everything to me. I’ve been in ministry in one form or another for many years and that same calling continues in the food truck. My faith has also kept me moving forward when circumstances would dictate otherwise. On the first day we had the new truck, as I was getting things organized for a big event, I recalled leveraging nearly everything we had (and then some) to get started. There were some doubts that began creeping into my head about this whole ‘food truck’ thing and I began to worry about attendance, whether people would like the truck, if we were prepared, etc. or if we would even make enough to cover food costs. I prayed for wisdom and peace and it was as if I heard a voice saying, ‘I haven’t brought you this far to fail. I've loved you, kept you, and provided for you to this point in life and will not drop the ball now.’ It immediately gave me peace and I pressed forward into the day with confidence and no more fears. Everything went better than we could have possibly expected and we’ve not looked back since. In summary, I absolutely love the food truck business and serving people!!
Putze serves as communications director for the Iowa Soybean Association and contributes articles for Iowa Food & Family Project.