Food truck: EatWonky does poutine

Customers line up at the EatWonky truck, whose co-owners are young entrepreneurs, not cooks. But they've managed to figure out how to cook hot dogs and top them with poutine, a mixture of french fries, cheese curds and gravy.
Customers line up at the EatWonky truck, whose co-owners are young entrepreneurs, not cooks. But they've managed to figure out how to cook hot dogs and top them with poutine, a mixture of french fries, cheese curds and gravy. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 4:45 PM

Where the Solar Crepes women focus on good nutrition, childhood friends Jeff Kelley, 34, and Minas Kaloosian, 35, are all about business. In early September, the two launched Eat Wonky, a food truck featuring poutine, a Canadian specialty of French fries topped with brown gravy and cheddar cheese curds that look and melt like part-skim mozzarella.

I accompanied Kelley and Kaloosian on their first-night run, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. We met up in the parking lot of Kelley's Cleveland Park apartment house, where the guys were going over a 56-item opening checklist. We headed to the Atlas District, finally finding parking on H Street NE at 14th in front of the Salvation Army. As Kelley maneuvered the truck along Florida Avenue, he outlined his strategy.

He and Kaloosian put up around $100,000 of their own money for Eat Wonky's start-up. Kelley's plan after Yale business school was to come to Washington, work in the private investment and real estate field for five years, then start his own business. He is right on schedule.

The Wonky way: Find a product, get behind it enthusiastically, grow the business. Do the research; consult other food truck operators, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs officials, and health and fire inspectors to get permits, licenses and regulation requirements in order.

And figure out how the heck to make poutine. They're Californians, after all, not Canadians. (They get asked about that a lot.) They're also not cooks. But how hard can it be?

"We are entrepreneurs at heart," says Kelley. They want people to get a lot for their money. The curds are shipped from Upstate New York, jumbo all-beef hot dogs (with poutine, they become Wonky Dogs; $7 each) come from the Bronx.

When I questioned the vegetable-based gravy from a powdered mix (it was one of my jobs to make up a few batches), Kelley countered, "If you ever had poutine in Quebec or Montreal at the most famous establishments, you will recognize the gravy."

The moment we parked on H Street NE, the curious began to circle.

"Are these those dogs I've been hearing so much about?" Turns out he was a DJ at a club nearby. DJs, apparently, talk Wonky.

The vehicle, painted pink, orange and blue with a distinctive open-mouth logo (the O in Wonky), is a 7-by-10-foot mail truck the guys bought in Jersey and turned over to East Coast Custom Coaches in Manassas to be stripped down and tricked out with a prep sink, refrigerator, panini press, two-burner stove, two-basket fryer, microwave, steam table and storage shelves. And air conditioning. Hallelujah.

All of the truck's systems, including the generator and fryer, are fueled by propane, which the guys make sure to stock up on in Maryland because the tanks cannot be refilled in Washington.

Kelley and Kaloosian kicked into high gear, setting up at 10 p.m. Tweet first. Then fill fryer, turn on pilot light and panini press, boil hot dogs, set out the Ottenberg's rolls, make gravy, stock the drinks and condiments and paper goods, turn on music (mixes from local DJs), start blanching some fries. (They haven't quite figured out how to consistently fry perfect, crisp specimens.)

Kelley takes the orders, schmoozes and hawks Treet bakery whoopie pies; Kaloosian is the cook. On this night, so was I, prepping baskets of fries, making Wonky Fries and Dogs, pressing grilled cheese sandwiches.

Some clubgoers meandered over to the truck.

"Whadya say, poutine heads?" Kelley bellowed.

"Are these the ones with all the cheese and gravy and good stuff?" someone asked.

"Sure are!" Sold.

It was a slow night on a holiday weekend, and the parking space was not prime. By 11:30, they had done 20 covers, at an average check of $7. (They had projected 50 covers per three-hour shift, five day/three night shifts a week). The day before, at Franklin Square, they'd sold out, doing 100 covers.

At 12:30 a.m., a small rush (District regs require shutdown by 1 a.m.); the fryer was turned off, the oil cooled and drained and everything wiped clean. Kelley chatted up the valet at the Biergarten Haus, who said he would hook him up with a better space.

By 2, the truck was headed home on crowded U Street.

"Hopefully this will be part of a development zone and we'd be able to sell here after 1 a.m.," Kelley said wistfully.

If the line of waiting customers we passed in front of Ben's Chili Bowl is any indication, there's plenty of business to go around.

- David Hagedorn

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