After toiling in less-than-fulfilling jobs, Jay and Kelly Barnes were up for a new challenge. So instead of being fed up, the Appleton couple got fired up—channeling their love of food into one of the Fox Cities’ most colorful start-ups, the Kangaroostaurant.
It’s hard to miss the 18-foot food truck — vividly emblazoned with a rainbow of colors and its trademark red kangaroo — as it makes daily lunch and dinner stops throughout downtown Appleton and the surrounding areas.
And while a whimsical name
and image is great, starting a
business, as the Barneses learned, takes a ton of research and a lot of dedication. It took plenty of both — along with an investment of time
and money — to make the fledgling food truck, which took to the roads
in July 2011, a reality.
With a knack for cooking and a history in the food industry, Kelly was focused on starting a restaurant. In doing research, she searched “low cost restaurant start-ups” and kept hitting on food trucks. (Not yet a mainstay in the colder climes, food trucks are prominent in warmer states and are gaining national visibility thanks to several Food Network shows.)
“We knew we were going to make a big investment, [so we] needed some direction,” says Kelly, who formerly worked for a major food manufacturer. In January 2011, the couple enrolled in the E-Seed class at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton.
“We had the idea of the business, and the class took us through the process of writing the business plan,” says Kelly, who also learned about licensing, regulations and other business-related topics.
While they applied for a Small Business Administration loan and eventually were approved for a bank loan to expedite their business, the couple chose to cash in some non-retirement accounts and accepted a $15,000 loan from a friend to fund their dream. The first major expense, of course, was the vehicle — which had to be nothing short of spectacular.
A Texas firm built their custom vehicle in 12 weeks, culminating with the exterior vinyl graphics wrap. While the truck itself cost $18,000, it took another $74,000 to trick out the kitchen inside, complete with a grill, steam tables and deep fryer.
Even amid steep investments and 16- to 20-hour days, the Barneses’ passion has never waned. “Being fully committed to something is what makes it work,” says Kelly.
A locavore’s dream
With ever-changing entrées — including pulled-pork tacos, sweet potato fries, vegetarian chili and burgers, and arancini (a ball of flavorful risotto) — the Kangaroostaurant offers scratch-made food from local suppliers, including Red Barn Family Farms, Olden Produce, Renard’s European Bakeshop, Venneford Farms and Arthur Bay Cheese.
“I didn’t want to open cans,” says Kelly, after an early morning prepping food at the Culinary Kitchen of the Fox Valley. “I wanted to cook. I was pretty strong on finding sources. People are really looking to support local businesses. That’s part of our commitment.”
Mark Biesack, a chef for Bon Appetit Management, the food service provider at Lawrence University, serves as a pricing and sourcing consultant (and baker) for the Kangaroostaurant.
“I came on at a time when they were getting really popular. [Jay and Kelly] definitely have the heart and the passion,” says Biesack.
“I feel like I have an ability to identify things that will work…[and] I really loved the idea of having a food truck in Appleton. When I walked up and saw that I could get a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich…[I liked that they were] doing things out of the norm.”
Biesack, like many of the Kangaroostaurant’s patrons, is especially thrilled about the local sourcing. “You can taste the difference,” he says.
While the Barneses still don’t take a paycheck for themselves (“We live very meagerly,” admits Kelly), they are proud that they haven’t gone into debt and that business has been growing, even amid a predicted seasonal drop in traffic.
Social media, blogging and word of mouth has fueled their reputation and patronage. And now, less than one year on the road, the Kangaroostaurant was one of 15 food trucks nationwide nominated for Mobile Cuisine magazine’s Rookie Food Truck of the Year Award. It placed third.
It’s been a whirlwind year that started with a dream, some killer recipes and a red kangaroo. “The best thing for us has been the customers,” says Kelly. “They are awesome. They’ve become like friends. They really want us to succeed.”
Kangaroostaurant menu and schedule: www.kangaroostaurant.com