In late winter 2020, restaurants watched their reservation books go from full to empty to legally closed within a few weeks. As capacity rules and mask mandates were tossed about between the legislature and governor, most establishments closed their dining rooms.
Even though food carts serve their food outdoors, they still prepare meals in a commercial kitchen. They were hit equally hard as mandates and safety protocols were issued. Some had to create online ordering systems and all had to figure out how to prepare food safely while protecting their staff and customers. Some carts closed the entire season; some got a very late start; all saw difficult times as once-busy locations, like the Capitol Square and campus, became ghost towns.
Food carts have advantages over brick-and-mortar restaurants—their overhead is lower and they can change their serving location. However, rain, a cold snap, or a global pandemic have big impacts on business.
But summer 2021 brings hope. As the temperature climbs, Wisconsin residents get vaccinated, and some head back to work, all are anxious to get outdoors. Food carts offer an outdoor take-out dining option that eager eaters feel very comfortable patronizing.
Aaron Collins owns Banzo with wife, Netalee Sheinman. They began as a food cart in fall 2011 but opened up for additional service at their brick-and-mortar location on Sherman Avenue the following summer.
Just out of college, the couple lived in New York City, and Netalee, who is Israeli, was working at an Israeli restaurant in Manhattan. While Middle Eastern food was prevalent in NYC, they wondered what would happen if they brought flavorful falafel, warm pita, creamy hummus, and chicken shawarma to the Midwest.
Aaron says Banzo’s falafel recipe was “learned from a guy in a basement on Park Avenue,” and the only thing that has been updated is the measurements—the original had ingredients added by the handful. They converted to standard cups and tablespoons so any size hand could make it.
“Our menu hasn’t really changed since we opened,” says Aaron. “We keep it simple and source locally if we can. It’s basically Middle Eastern street food. Simple, good, hearty food that is affordable and accessible.” They highlight beef from local Vindicator Brand, and most of the menu is gluten free with many vegan options.
Aaron never grows tired of eating the Banzo F-Bomb, a combo meal featuring their falafel and chicken. He’s also a huge fan of their grass-fed beef kofta, which is meat slow simmered in a red pepper and tomato sauce. While falafel is their number-one seller (and hummus a close second), he encourages customers to branch out and try the beef kofta or the batata, a sweet potato falafel.
In typical years, Banzo’s food cart is out every day—Monday through Friday around the Capitol Square and Library Mall, and at events and festivals all weekend. In 2020, the catering side of Banzo’s business dried up, and they weren’t comfortable opening the food cart until they had completed extra safety precautions and training. They opened in June 2020 instead of their usual April.
Takeout and delivery from their brick-and-mortar location has been good “with lots of loyal customers and a very supportive neighborhood,” says Aaron. Although they’re drastically rethinking what the 2021 season will look like, Aaron says, “We will be out there!”
El Grito Taqueria
Five years ago, Matthew Danky launched El Grito Taqueria with a friend, a small taco cart, and a full-sized food truck. The friend has since left the business, but El Grito is still going strong.
El Grito offers a variety of imaginative taco styles, including braised meat, like beef brisket and Yucatan-style pork shoulder. They also have unique veggie tacos with hearty vegetables, like squash and cauliflower. “Everyone serves al pastor and steak tacos,” says Matthew. “I try to bring a little something different, using the tortilla as a vehicle and putting creative things in it.
“I love the cauliflower taco. It has roasted cauliflower with tahini, cilantro parsley sauce, cumin, coriander, lemon juice, topped with pomegranate molasses and pumpkin seeds. The flavor never gets old.” Customer favorites include brisket tacos and their ceviche specials, but Matthew always encourages customers and catering clients to try the vegetarian options.
In 2020, when everything was up in the air, Matthew launched weekly meal kits, available for pickup at the Regent Street Co-op and FEED Kitchen. It’s not something he wants to do forever, but it helped keep El Grito’s name out there and generate some income.
Matthew is feeling optimistic about 2021, as people are likely to feel most comfortable with outside dining. While they’ve previously relied on lunchtime crowds at the Capitol, with fewer employees likely to be downtown, he’s rethinking their strategy, imagining evening pop-ups in neighborhoods, heading back to spots on Willy Street and near the Regent Street Co-op, and using social media to get attention and let followers know their location.
There are advantages to being mobile. Matthew’s not paying brick-and-mortar rent over the slow winter months; his overhead is different; and he’s able to reach diners in a different way, especially over the warmer months. “I would love to emphasize it’s all about our customers—it starts and ends with that.” Matthew’s looking forward to this summer and getting back to El Grito’s roots.
Ugly Apple Café
Laurel Burleson founded Ugly Apple Café food cart in 2016. Her concept was inspired by the amount of food waste she’d seen, which led to her mantra: an ugly apple may not be brought to market, but it can still make a beautiful fritter. She’s been in and out of professional kitchens since high school and has a degree in hospitality management.
Laurel describes her way of cooking as home-style with a vaguely Southern accent. While she’s always focused on incorporating produce-seconds, she says the pandemic has shifted her perspective to preserving more local produce through processing, like jams, applesauce, and her classic fruit leather. Laurel feels like the situation has produced more waste and more hungry people. She’s trying to expand certain products and work with nonprofits to help bridge the gap.
The Ugly Apple food cart wasn’t out in 2020. Laurel had twin boys in late 2019, so she extended her maternity leave and focused on private catering and processing more food. Think apple marmalade, black currant jelly, aronia berry applesauce, and more. You can find Ugly Apple’s baked goods and preserves around town through Christine’s Kitchens, Brix Cider, Pasture & Plenty, and Landmark Creamery’s delivery service.
Laurel’s sculptural cart, an apple crate with a shiny red apple on top, can be booked for special events. She’s still debating what this summer will look like for her cart. A lot will depend on farmers’ markets (where she has vended in the past), although she’s hoping to be out and about selling her breakfast sandwiches, loaded baked potato bombs, and the perennial customer darlings, apple doughnuts, and fritters.
As restrictions lift and the days warm, food cart owners are hopeful they will have a stellar season. For patrons, things may look different as safety protocols remain and locations change, but look for your favorite carts and try some new ones. Each cart is trying to make a strong comeback after a challenging year and every order of tacos, falafel, and fritters is an investment in your full belly and Madison’s outdoor dining scene.
Anna Thomas Bates moved to Wisconsin 21 years ago, and after shopping at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and wandering through the Driftless Area, she hasn’t looked back. Co-owner of Landmark Creamery in Paoli, if she isn’t tasting/selling cheese, you’ll find her writing about food, reading a good book, swimming, or hiking with her two boys.
Banzo • banzomadison.com
El Grito Taqueria • elgritotaqueria.com
Ugly Apple Café • uglyapple.com