It's hard to believe that the mobile kitchen and fashionable exterior that is the Acacia Cafe was a rundown electrical van in Pennsylvania less than a year ago. Now smooth stainless steel lines and a full kitchen - complete with hot and cold water - dominates the space that was once meant to simply carry tools.
Once you see who's driving the truck, however, it all comes together. The truck's journey and transformation from a working man's van into a conscious food eatery on wheels is harmonious with that of the woman behind the wheel.
Dawn Brooks-Rapp lives her life by simple principles. Principles that she somehow sautees up on the flat grill, slaps between two slices of artisan bread and deliciously serves up - with a smile, of course.
Dawn is a mother of two teenagers, a Little Compton resident and a regular renaissance woman. After receiving her associate's degree from the Culinary Institute of America, she worked for less than four years in two renowned Rhode Island restaurants before setting out on her own as a young business woman. She had learned and had already created her own version of what a meal should be.
Three Sisters catering was Dawn's first ambitious foray into the world where chef meets small business owner. She served up catered lunches all over Providence before she began to settle down and start a family.
"I was burnt out on the food industry, so I went back to school and became a nurse," she said.
As a registered nurse, Dawn learned to help people, but turned her wholistic approach to feeding the body into a holistic women's healthcare and became a doula.
As Dawn worked in women's health and raised her family, she always cooked. Whether it was dishing up something funky for the family or whipping up a wedding cake for a friend here and there. She now cooked for her own pleasure, and spread that feeling around with her always unique, but guaranteed to be delicious concoctions.
Two years ago, the passing of a dear friend pushed Dawn to look at her life and shake things up.
"That was a turning point in my life when we lost David, my best friend," said Dawn. "He was sort of the core anchor for a group of us and I just decided that we could not wait for things to come to us, we have to do what we want and do what we are good at."
The pipe dream had started puttering down the road to reality, even though Dawn did not yet know what it would be. She quit her job as a registered nurse and thought about what she was good at and what she would like to do. The answer was cooking good-to-eat and good-for-you food and talking to and connecting with people.
She realized she enjoyed preparing healthy foods, and inventing recipes. Serving that up, she could watch that joy spread across the faces of her family or another lucky taste-tester of her wholesole, yet flavorful meals.
"I try to do a lot of good karma out of the truck," she said. "That's kind of the philosophy behind the truck."
The name says it all. Taken from the story of the African Acacia tree, which is the staple of life for tribes in the African bush. It is literally the tree of life incarnate, teaching its people a profound respect for their land.
"I like to think of us as not a big life-saving thing, we are just a business model and I try to follow to respect the earth, give back," said Dawn describing the impetus in creating the idea behind Acacia Cafe. "I try to be as green as possible, good karma, and just try to help as much as I can."
Dawn is the real deal, not a whole-foods market, but just a small-town, small-business women trying to share a slice of happiness and pass on one thing that has kept herself motivated and her family healthy and strong: eating right, well and often.
"When we eat well, we feel really good and we perform better," she said. As though summing up the problems for so many of life's pitfalls.
Acacia Cafe is saving the world one sandwich at a time, because Dawn puts so many of her principles of simple, clean living into her cooking. That plants a seed in the belly of each new customer to take better care of ourselves, eachother and the earth. She also really digs supporting Little Compton's farms and serves up seasonal delights from straight out of Walker's Roadside Stand.
As squashes and apples came out earlier this month, she mixed up a hearty batch of roasted butternut squash and apple soup. Keep an eye out for the surprisingly simple recipe.
In the next year as Dawn dreamed of changing her life for the better, she recognized a growing trend in the food industry - gourmet-style food trucks. Thanks to the 2010 debut of the Food Network's show The Great Food Truck Race, the specialty-food truck craze would literally sweep the nation and change the popular misconcetion that food trucks are all greasy old roach coaches touting hot dogs and lukewarm coffee at a job site near you.
Dawn recognized a niche in the Tiverton-Little Compton area for her culinary roadside delights and hopped into high gear, researching an affordable truck to transform alongside her life.
Eva, as Dawn affectionately calls the truck - the namesake of Acacia Cafe's silly, stuffed broccoli mascot - was not only a cost-effective way to open a restaurant, but one she could do literally in her driveway... or at Bliss Four Corners... or even beach-side at South Shore Beach.
Looking at the truck today and hearing the smooth pur of her engine, you don't see the hurdles that Dawn and her husband struggled over to turn this dream into a reality. She added that there are more than a few nuances to owning and operating a food truck. But with the help of her husband and friends she and Acacia Cafe perservered, making her success at serving up a slice of the good life after just three months on the road, all that much sweeter. Dawn received approval to park at Bliss Corners in Tiverton and the Little Compton town beach to sell her sandwiches in August.
One Little Compton Town Council member, shared his old-school doubts that a food truck could serve anything sanitary, let alone of quality at the hearing where she was awarded her sales license. Dawn was all that much more determined to prove him wrong.
Eva was old, tired and had quite a few more mechanical issues than originally known, but Dawn fixed them, and carried on with the installation of her pristine kitchen. Seriously, not even a fruit fly in there - let alone a roach! She said the state Department of Health was impressed by the truck's ability to flush through cold and hot running water - a shout out to Dawn's husband for finagling that one!
At a glance, Acacia Cafe is trendy, with its chic tree logo stamped in a pastel purple against the truck's earthy green exterior. To the right of the wide service window, stands Dawn's pride and joy: her copper, embossed sandwich board. Made by friend, metalsmith and sandwich artist extraordinaire, it is a masterful addition to the truck. A tree fittingly borders the magnetic copper expanse with patina-green colored leaves. But in the center, is Dave looking down on it all and seeing what he inspired Dawn to take charge and achieve.
So far, Acacia Cafe is stirring up quite a hype across Rhode Island, Dawn even served breakfast - sandwiches of course - to the local radio hosts at HJY and 93.3 Coast on Thursday morning before meeting with Patch.
Today you can track her down at the first-ever Newport Food Truck Festival from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Eva and Dawn's biggest event yet!
Try as we might, it's impossible to pin Dawn's zeal for cooking and passion for creating new recipes. Because of Dawn's dependence on local harvests and natural ingredients, her menu is forever changing.
"The food really speaks for itself," said Dawn when I asked about her tendency to cover a vast array of ethnic food dishes on one limited menu. For a sampling of some of Dawn's sandwiches, check out the Spring/Summer menu on Acacia Cafe's website.
"If you want to know about the food truck, come eat out of the food truck," said Dawn with a smile.
She was busy prepping to serve at least 1,000 hungry festival goers at her home on Simmons Road in Little Compton. She was the vision of a multitasker, scolding her 13-year-old daughter for running late for a tutoring session, chatting with the local Patch editor, and digging up her favorite apron for an ever-so casual photo shoot alongside her eight-month-old baby Eva (a.k.a Acacia Cafe's set of wheels). All the while she motored along with boxes of breads and wonderful ingredients to be combined, simmered, sauteed and finally eaten today.
The biggest event she has seen yet was at First Works in Providence when a steady line of about 400-500 customers kept her busy whipping up sandwiches for two and a half hours. The line continued, but Acacia Cafe had run out of food to serve its patrons!
A limited menu of four delicious sandwiches will be served for five food points each at the Food Truck Festival at the Newport Yachting Center. There is no excuse not to head down for the food, fun and festivities today, as the skies will continue to clear up and the sun will make a much-needed appearance after Friday's thunderstorms. Head down, eat well, support your neighbor, and enjoy one of the last nice day's of the season on the water in Newport.
The sandwich menu du jour:
- Banh Mi, a Vietnamese-style sandwich made with your choice of shrimp or pork, lettuce, cucmber, diakon, carrot salad and cilantro with a lime mayonnaise on a grilled roll.
- Portabella Burger, a marinated whole portabella mushroom, served with grilled onions, goat cheese and arugula on grilled sweat bread.
- Black Bean Burger, a vegetarian black bean burger with chipotle cream on a bed of mixed greens.
- The Italian Daughter, prosciutto, salami, provolone cheese, marinated roasted red peppers, lettuce and balsamic-marinated onions on a roll make this sandwich a rival for Federal Hill.
At home Dawn cooks brown rices and pastas served up family-style with roasted vegetables or grilled tofu, sauteed chicken, turkey or local fresh fish.
While she says she's not trying to save the world, she is doing as much as she can to go green. She recycles and uses all recycled and completely compostable paper goods, she shops locally and incorporates locally grown produce into her ever-evolving variety of lunchtime treats whenever possible. And although she can't afford to feed you totally organic all the time, she can at the very least promise you that your choice in sandwich was made with all-natural ingredients.
Unlike your neighborhood big-box supermarket, Dawn's menu always reflects the change in seasons and she strives to use the freshest possible ingredients - evident with her unique twists on the time-tested lunchtime favorite, the sandwich.
Her open business account a Walker's Roadside Stand on West Main Road, constantly challenges her to whip up new versions of old favorites, wait for the roasted butternut squash soup recipe later on Patch.
You can bet, if she wouldn't make it to feed to her own family, she won't serve it on the truck - which is why she said she would probably never get a fryer or serve french fries out of the truck. Dawn is not a pretentious food connoisseur jumping on the health food trend, but rather just the opposite, a life-long farm-to-table advocate who is reaching out to her community for the right reasons, to give people options to eating right on the go.
"When I get tired of making something, I do a little research and make something else, which is the best part," she said.
"I think about what I like when I eat, I think salty, sweet and savory all together," said Dawn of her sometimes inventive, but tastefully balanced renditions on the sandwich.
"I try my whole sandwich philosophy, which is making really good separate components and putting it all together," she said, adding that the advantage of a personally grilled and seasoned mushroom and pepper to a sandwich cannot be overrated.
Even now just three months in as a start-up small business touting a full schedule of events to serve at throughout the winter and continuing with catering jobs, Dawn is still dreaming of what tomorrow could bring.
"Someday I would like the food truck to be a cafe, a stationary cafe." She said. Adding, "With a bakery," almost as though the dream was evolving as she spoke.
"It would be amazing to be able to serve really good sandwiches with really great bread, and whole grain bread," she finished.
But for now, Dawn is staying realistic and Eva is running smoothly.
"It's still a work in progress so by next summer we will run like a well-oiled machine," she said.
If you are interested in have a party or event catered by Dawn or the Acacia Cafe Food Truck, you can contact her at 323-3002.