He jumped out of the stone-gray food truck, bouncing down the hitch steps in a grease-stained T-shirt, a mop of light brown hair, and a kind of jovial “You betcha!” energy in every movement, expression and word out of his mouth.
Dave Gess, along with his wife, Joy, visited the Crow Wing County Fair for the first time this year -- in fact, as the Big Lake natives offered, it’s the first county fair of any kind at which they’ve set up shop and sold their fare.
The friendly, unassuming couple may not pop out of the woodwork at first glance, but they operate the top-ranked food truck in the state, according to a statewide viewers poll by WCCO in 2018. At Gess What’s Cookin', as the family operation on wheels is dubbed, they peddle delicious Americana-style barbecue confections to fairgoers at fair prices.
“We have an all-America menu,” Dave told the Dispatch Friday, Aug. 2. “It really fits the concept, it’s what those kinds of guys are looking for.”
What does that mean? It means a paper boat filled with deep-fried crinkle fries and cheese curds, smothered in melted cheese sauce, plus a dollop of pulled pork straight out of the slow-cooker, with barbecue sauce drizzled on top and a dab of spice that adds a bit of pizzazz and oomph. At varying turns, it’s chewy and crunchy, then melts on the tongue.
That’s a “Nuclear Pit-Boss,” by the way. It’s a staple on a menu ranging from bacon cheeseburgers and pulled-pork sandwiches to street tacos and nachos, but there’s a heavy emphasis on cheese curds, pulled pork, barbecue sauce, gravy and grilled beef patties throughout. Everything, Dave said, aside from fries and curds, is fresh and not frozen.
If that doesn't speak for the operation, their accolades will -- the Gesses garnered enough votes to win the WCCO Best Food Truck, beating out two larger and more popular outfits in the Twin Cities metro. They’re in the middle of a two-year reign on top.
“We just thought we were going to have fun with it and see,” said Dave, who laughingly admitted they would have been more than happy to get third place. Still not bad for a former fertilizer applicator. “Hey, just to be mentioned with those other trucks, I was more than tickled pink. When they called and told us we won, I said, ‘Oh no, this has got to be a joke.’”
As Dave would put it, it’s the kind of cuisine best suited for brew pubs, town festivals and outdoor concerts, or the likes of NASCAR races and -- with a twist -- nuclear power plants shut down for maintenance.
That’s right, Gess What’s Cookin’ has another distinction -- the first food truck in the nation to acquire clearance to work and cater on nuclear power plant sites, Gess said. That came as an unexpected opportunity early in his time as a food truck proprietor 11 years ago -- three with the current rig, with another eight touting a small trailer around.
Before that, the Gesses became known for throwing fantastic shindigs and backstreet barbecues, so good their friends pushed them to take it professional. It’s grown from that initial leap, though the food truck is still the definition of a “mom and pop” business -- currently operated by Dave, Joy, and their niece and nephew.
While Dave works the truck as his profession, the business is on the cusp of allowing Joy to quit her day job and join her husband full-time on the road. Then the goal is to buy another truck. After that, the goal is to establish a brick and mortar building. All in all, Dave said the hope is to be able to cater to the whole of the Upper Midwest, Great Lakes region -- from International Falls to southern Minnesota, from Fargo to Green Bay.
Beyond family, Dave noted there’s a whole community of food trucks, vendors and carnival attractions working together -- whether that’s fixing a flat tire, loaning each other napkins or forks or food items in a pinch, sharing power cords, and so on.
“All of us food vendors are working so tight together,” Dave said. “None of us are trying to slit each other’s throats. They’ll help out in any way, shape or form.”
While Gess What’s Cookin’ has packed up and headed back to Big Lake for now, Dave said their experience at the Crow Wing County Fair has been a good one. Look for them to return in 2020, he noted, or, on occasion, they can be found at Lupulin Brewing at 570 Humboldt Drive in Big Lake, which serves as their de facto base of operations.