What is it about outdoor dining that we love so much? Whether a picnic in a park or a patio table at a restaurant, fresh air eating turns a meal into a special event. And no one denies that food prepared and served from a truck has a magical summery savor that can’t be found anywhere else. When you put those two qualities together, you get the Hub: Mankato’s very own community park that boasts unique food truck menus every weekday during the summer season as well as events that celebrate local growers and crafters.
“We definitely want more people to just come down and shop and experience Old Town altogether, just make a day of it,” said Stephanie Braun, director of the Mogwai Collaborative and point of contact for the Hubbard Building, whose proprietor also owns the Hub. When visitors to Mankato’s Old Town stroll or motor down historic Riverfront Drive, they see an inviting space with raised planter boxes, plenty of seating, and huge, multicolored letters spelling the park’s name.
When Braun was placed in charge of overseeing the Hub, she was eager to see it blossom as a community gathering space. The results have been encouraging.
“The Hub food park is meant to be a community amenity,” Braun said. Besides booking the food trucks and providing the marketing, prior to COVID-19, Braun also used the Hub as a gathering space for community events.
“We had salsa dancing in the park – that was super fun!” Braun remembered of 2019. “We had an instructor come in and host. It was free for anyone in the community to come. We had a food truck make traditional Cuban food because that’s where salsa dancing originated from.”
Staying local is really important to us and supporting our local entrepreneurs and farmersStephanie Braun
Although this year’s lineup of events was cancelled due to health and safety concerns, Braun is hopeful that similar events will resume next year. Fortunately for food-loving locals, the food truck calendar that Braun books is still in full swing for the summer of 2020. The different truck owners pull into the Hub rain or shine, ready to share flavorful, diverse cuisine with the Mankato community every week.
Heavy Metal Grill
For Marty Richie of Heavy Metal Grill, fun is always a key ingredient on his menu. From the tongue-in-cheek business title, to the flame-red “Food that Rocks!” slogan emblazoned on the truck’s side, the Lakeville-based owner wants customers to expect a good time.
“That’s really been our philosophy,” Richie said. “I wanted something that wasn’t taken too seriously, to make good food that people like.”
We’ve kind of evolved into this pseudo-taco machine. At our top speed we can do 100 to 160 an hour.Marty Richie – Heavy Metal Grill
Richie and his wife Deb’s specialty is a range of quirky taco offerings, from their pulled pork dish drenched in their signature homemade Jack Daniels sauce, to their grilled Mojito Lime Chicken take on the Mexican favorite.
“We’ve kind of evolved into this pseudo-taco machine,” laughed Richie. “At our top speed we can do 100 to 160 an hour.”
The secret to their speed is careful prep work before business hours, and fantastic teamwork while selling.
“It’s just my wife and I,” Richie said of their selling process. “She runs the window and sells the food; I make the food and fire it out the window. It works really well. We don’t trip over each other in the truck.”
Evan’s Eatery is run by another husband and wife duo based out of New Richland. Daniel and April Miller found that their business was best when they sold popular summer eats – and what is a better summer food than a juicy, all-American burger?
“It’s basically what we like to eat in restaurants, and we just wanted to make whatever we liked to eat the best,” said Daniel Miller, who with his wife chose to name their business after their first son. “We didn’t really spare much expense as far as ingredients go. We just wanted to make the best burgers you’ve ever had.”
We didn’t really spare much expense as far as ingredients go. We just wanted to make the best burgers you’ve ever had.Daniel Miller – Evan’s Eatery
To guarantee that ambition, the Millers begin every business day with a trip to their local butcher, who grinds all their meat the very day they plan to sell it.
“People like how fresh it is,” Miller said. Both he and his wife come from culinary backgrounds, so they understand the importance of quality beef and signature creations. The Evan’s Eatery menu gives customers the choice of either angus or wagyu beef, and most of the sauces that top the burgers are homemade. The truck’s Chipotle Aioli is especially popular.
Is your mouth watering yet? Greg Traylor of Mankato’s TNT Eats wants to make his community hungry for authentic ribs, brisket, and pulled pork.
“I’m originally from Kansas City. You cut me, I’m going to bleed barbecue sauce,” Traylor joked. After driving a commercial truck for 13 years, Traylor’s wife encouraged him to start a business that he would love. Something food-themed seemed like Traylor’s best bet.
I’m originally from Kansas City. You cut me, I’m going to bleed barbecue sauce.Greg Traylor – TNT Eats
“Barbecue has always been something that I’ve been dabbling around with,” Traylor said. A perfectionist by nature, he fine-tunes all his recipes until he’s completely satisfied before he sells them. TNT Eats’ Great White barbecue sauce, which is also sold at Wooden Spoon, took three years of trial and error before he decided to bottle it.
Traylor enjoys the input he gets from his customers and family when it comes to his menu.
“My most popular dish is called the Mac Attack – that is homemade macaroni and cheese that’s been smoked on the grill and then topped with our 17-hour slow-smoked brisket and drizzled with our award-winning white sauce,” Traylor said. “At first, I was selling all the components separately on the truck, so my daughter in law put it all together and my son gave it the name. I think it’s a favorite because people really enjoy going back to a little bit of their childhood, and getting a little bit of an adult version of the macaroni.”
And Many Others
Other returning food trucks serve up a smorgasbord of choices, from American bistro offerings, to authentic Venezuelan cuisine, to Thai dishes inspired by family recipes. Braun said she loves knowing that the Hub is helping spread awareness of small businesses and eateries.
“Staying local is really important to us and supporting our local entrepreneurs and farmers,” Braun explained. She has noticed that the visiting food trucks also make a point to encourage local commerce. When lines are long and people are hungry, Braun sees truck owners suggest that visitors try the Wooden Spoon, Mom and Pop’s Ice Cream, or any other nearby eatery.
“We all try to work together down here,” Braun said.
For the Hub organizers, working together also means allowing the community at large to book the park for their own events. Pre-pandemic, the Hub was available for individually-hosted gatherings, provided that the gatherings were family-friendly and scheduled in advance.
“Anyone was more than welcome to come and use the Hub for whatever they wanted,” said Braun. “We don’t take a fee, whereas any other type of venue would probably take a fee for an event.”
After the health crisis is over, the Hub will return to business as usual for gatherings, events, and more. Until then, Braun hopes it will remain a gathering space for the Mankato public – and a means of broadening cultural horizons while social distancing.
“My goal is to try to bring more awareness to different cultures and just diversity in general to Mankato” Braun shared. “I feel that experiencing that through food and education is a fun way to do it.”