Bridgett Blough, the Organic Gypsy, knows the farmers from whom she buys produce that goes into food she sells from her big blue food truck.
She grew up in rural Coloma Township, north of St. Joseph, and before she put an item on the menu she visits each farmer to check out his or her growing practices. That leads Blough to describe her work as food that's "handcrafted and thoughtfully sourced" or to put it another way: "slow food fast, from farm to truck" -- two of the mottoes that adorn her vehicle.
Though the seasons have changed, the truck remains on the road, making appearances Dec. 1 at the Saugatuck Market and in Chicago, Dec. 15-16 at the Randolph Street Market.
She's part of what the National Restaurant Association calls "one of the hottest trends in the restaurant industry right now." And one that is just pulling into Southwest Michigan. In August, the City of Kalamazoo approved licensing for food trucks that allows them to sell on public streets as long as they are at least 150 feet from existing brick-and-mortar restaurants and 100 feet from city sanctioned fairs and festivals.
With that approval Blough quickly made her presence and her food known locally. She sold food from her blue truck at the People's Food Co-op's 100 Mile Market
, catered events for Kalamazoo College Homecoming, and could be found downtown across from city hall on certain days.
This summer she also regularly set up for business at the farmers market in St. Joseph.
In June, she traveled to the four-day Electric Forest
Festival (formerly known as Rothbury), where offering the only organic food on the property proved to be a big draw. "Every day I got busier and busier. People were tweeting that I had the best ice cream. It's not your typical festival food. It's a different niche."
As she sat parked next to carnie wagons selling elephant ears, hot dogs, and hamburgers she started to get positive feedback. People repeatedly told her: "It's so nice to have healthy food."
She's found that people are willing to pay a little more because they place a higher value on organic food grown locally. Customers also appreciate that her serving utensils and plates and cups are all 100 percent biodregradable.
Blough, a 2008 graduate of Kalamazoo College
, where she studied economics, realized around then that she wanted to own her own business but was not certain what that might be. An interest in wellness led her to the health and fitness industry, specifically yoga and pilates. There she quickly learned that people had mostly a very negative relationship with food and she began to consider what she could do to turn that around.
"I love to eat and to share food with people," Blough says. "At some point, for a lot of people in our culture, food became the enemy, something to limit, something to be watchful of."
She decided to enroll at Bauman College to become a Certified Natural Chef where she studied food for special diets.
It was at a festival at Lake Tahoe that the seed was planted that would grow into Blough's owning a food truck. The food there was really expensive and not exactly nutritious. She knew she could do better.
Her next step was to find the right truck. She recognized she could never afford a fully fitted-out truck from the factory -- they can start at $100,000. Blough decided instead to refit a new fire truck by Spencer Manufacturing. After studying a lot of other trucks, she determined what she needed to make a moveable kitchen and place from which to sell her food. Following her design, Blough's father and cousin made the changes to the vehicle, taking out the rescue equipment and installing stainless steel prep tables, a stove, storage, and more.
Considering the wary attitude some brick-and-mortar restaurants have toward food trucks, Blough's road to success has not always been easy. Officials tried to have her ejected from the South Haven Farmers Market this summer. She successfully pointed out that if she had been selling the same food from a tent no one would be challenging her right to sell her organic entrees.
On the other hand, the reaction to Blough's food has been overwhelmingly positive. Some of her successes have been healthy popsicles and yogurt parfaits. She also has learned not to bill her gluten free cookies that way unless patrons ask. People who have eaten tasteless gluten free pastries won't try them. The cherry, almond, chocolate cookie sold out in South Haven.
Her menu often changes with what farmers have available in season. "I try a recipe, cost it out and put it on the menu. It is more difficult than getting it from big food distributors but it is worth it to me." For example, a popular sandwich using arugula came off the menu when the summer drought ruined the lettuce crop.
When she hits the road, she travels with the statue of a Buddha as her co-pilot in the truck that measures 21 feet long, 7 feet wide and 7 feet tall, and she says that learning to drive "a real truck" has in many ways tested her resourcefulness.
Support from her family has made it all possible.
"There is no way I could have done this without them," Blough says, "and I am humbled by how much they have helped."
Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
Photos by Erik Holladay.