Many restaurants are struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic since dining in has been prohibited. In this time of uncertainty, two bold young women are prepping to launch a vegan food truck the likes of which the Twin Ports has never seen.
If all goes as planned, Mama Roots will start popping up in parking lots with its big blue school bus in late June. The mobile restaurant will serve up plant-based, globally inspired cuisine.
“We’re excited to come out during this time,” owner Desiree Jenkins said, noting she and co-owner Melanie Hallstein expect to be able to ease into opening a bit due to coronavirus concerns. “It doesn’t feel like there will be 100 people in line.”
The food truck’s all-vegan menu will feature farm-fresh ingredients that shift with the seasons. Hallstein describes the food as “local, seasonal, delicious, fresh, fun.” She promises the menu will always include one gluten-free option and that offerings will rotate regularly, bringing in Latin American and Asian influences.
“I love my food to be super dynamic,” Hallstein said. “I never cook the same thing twice. And I want people to have fun eating it.”
The name “Mama Roots” is meant to convey what the business is all about: vegan comfort food. “Roots” denotes the plant-based aspect of the business and “Mama” comes from the notion that “it tastes like mama’s cooking,” according to Jenkins. “Those are the people that have influenced us in our lives and helped us become better cooks — the mothers out there. For me, it was my grandma and I’m holding onto her recipes. For Mel, it’s her mom’s recipes. We’re putting love into our meals like moms do.”
Hallstein has traveled to more than 20 countries and volunteered at more than 50 farms. She recently released a book titled Holding Ground about this experience and how it affected her worldview. “I thought I wanted to be a farmer but I realized it was too isolating for me,” Hallstein said. Still, the experience solidified her passion for sustainable living and food production, and gave her the food truck idea.
Hallstein’s sister operates a sustainable farm in Wisconsin, LTD (living the dream) Farm, which will supply Mama Roots with the bulk of its produce. She points out that vegan restaurants often use ingredients like pineapples and cashews — items that aren’t grown locally and have to be imported.
“I want to be part of a wave of veganism that’s more sustainable. I really believe in that,” Hallstein said, noting people can get all their nutritional requirements from a plant-based diet. “I care about that lifestyle and want it to be precipitated through the food,” she said.
The Perfect Partnership
The business team met while Hallstein was working at the Pharm Juice Bar & Kitchen (formerly the Juice Pharm), where Jenkins is a co-owner. Hallstein shared her food truck idea with Jenkins over dinner one night and they found out they shared a dream.
“It started out being a concept that was thrown out there,” said Hallstein. “A week later, Desi was online and saw a school bus for sale. She called me up and said, ‘Should we buy a bus and just do this?’”
Jenkins points out the Pharm is the only restaurant in the Twin Ports that is strictly vegetarian. The eatery regularly receives feedback from customers that it should be expand to Hermantown or Duluth’s East End.
“I always thought it was a great idea to be able to pick up and go to any location and be flexible with that. And to not have to worry about the cost of opening up a restaurant,” said Jenkins. In contrast to the Pharm, where the menu is static, customers can expect Mama Roots to be more playful and spontaneous with its offerings.
Jenkins shares Hallstein’s passion for plant-based food and travel and has been to countries and states with more of a food-truck culture where mobile restaurants regularly gather, which she describes as “a food court on wheels.” She wants to cultivate that in Duluth.
There’s already been a positive response to the new endeavor, from the community and even from would-be competitors. Vegans have sent thank you messages to their social media accounts. Area food truck owners have been willing to share their expertise on issues like permitting. Friends and acquaintances have pitched in with the DIY process of fixing up the bus, from floor installation to giving advice about the engine.
“A lot of people are craving something to be excited about,” said Hallstein. “They know we won’t have a normal summer. They see someone shooting for their dreams and they want to contribute.”
Hallstein is enthusiastic about the business’ prospects and gives Jenkins credit for helping achieve their shared vision. “Her attitude is that anything is possible. I couldn’t imagine a better business partner.”
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