If you were in St. Paul Sunday and on the lookout for something satisfying, unique, and a little bit spicy to fuel your Grand Old Day activities, you may have spotted Chris Millner in front of Dixie's on Grand manning his food truck Aussie's Kebabs. Millner is one of the dozen or so new food truck owners trying to carve out a niche and prove that he and his product are not just part of a passing fad. Right now they are selling off 10th Street and Nicollet and are open for lunch from 11:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., but they also plan to do the farmers market circuit and are trying to make the rounds in Uptown and downtown Minneapolis for the late-night crowd.
The Hot Dish caught up with Millner recently to get the inside scoop on his experiences traveling and eating in Australia, the search for the perfect flatbread, and the other local food trucks that have impressed him.
1. What inspired you to sell doner kebabs and to do it from a truck?
A couple years ago I studied on the Gold Coast in eastern Australia for a semester while I attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth. I was introduced to doner kebabs from some friends we met on our trip and couldn't help but notice how popular they were. I had never heard of them, and from there on I knew I had to bring them back to Minnesota. The beach, waves, and food in Australia were just too good to forget. I thought this could be a way to hold on to those memories. Every place we got a kebab from in Australia always had lots of walking traffic and people out and about. Once the food truck scene developed in Minneapolis, I knew I had found the way to get the kebabs in front of my customers.
2. You used Kickstarter to fund part of the start-up costs of your project. How was that experience for you? Did you have a back-up plan in case you didn't get the funding within the allotted time?
Kickstarter is a brilliant platform for anyone with an idea that has legs. I researched the site and successfully funded projects before putting together my own. The product, idea, and movie never seemed to matter. It was all about the individuals putting them together. I was very happy to be a part of a funded project and cannot thank everyone enough. I was speaking with other nonprofits in the Minneapolis area in case I wasn't able to secure enough from Kickstarter.
3. There are a ton of new food trucks this year. Now that you have officially opened, are you finding that competition is tougher than you'd expected? Or have you managed to carve out your own niche?
Trucks are everywhere and everyone seems to be bringing something new to the table. Most people are familiar with gyros with the same old sauce, same ingredients you get time and again. I think we've given our customers what they want, but with options and variety. Our kebabs are fresh and made to order. Nothing is premade in an off-site location. It's done as soon as your ticket is printed in the truck. Portabella mushrooms, cheese, roasted red peppers, garlic chili, sweet chili, hummus, tzatziki are a couple add-ins that might dazzle your taste buds. Our chicken and doner kebabs are grilled and wrapped in foil to eat on the go. I feel like they are something all their own.
4. How did you find vendors with the particular sauces, meat, produce, etc. that you needed to create your kebabs? What are your favorite things on the menu?
It was not easy. It took almost a year to find the right bread to use for our kebabs. The size, shape, structure of the bread we needed wasn't consistent with pitas used in gyros and other doner kebabs in the area, so we were really introducing something new. Most importantly our bread is grilled to seal in the flavor, which brings another issue: Does it seal well under high heat? We have added a few twists of our own, but we still wanted them to be as accurate to Australian style kebabs as possible. A couple of real Aussies came to the truck and they were like, "You guys hit it on the money! The flavor and texture are spot on!" That was a big relief. They did mention the kebabs were on the small side, so we beefed them up a bit. I would recommend, if you like spicy, a doner kebab with garlic chili, and roasted red pepper sauce. Jesse Schultheis, our kitchen manager, really put together a tasty sauce. I also really like the fresh taste and crispiness the cucumbers add to our kebabs. They are a must!
5. If you're not eating from your own truck, what are some of your other favorite food truck foods?
I have not been a very good advocate for the industry and need to try more trucks. Our commissary kitchen houses a number of trucks from Fork in the Road to Saucy Burt's. Though we are selling sort of Middle Eastern foods, I am a sucker for Mexican. I tried Fork in the Road's nachos last winter at the Beer Dabbler in downtown St. Paul, and they were really good. It may have had something to do with the countless number of beers we were trying, but then again, who doesn't like a good batch of nachos?