A coffee truck, a hot dog cart, a produce stand and a baker from four different cities in West Virginia are united under the common goal of creating connections across Appalachia through their independent food and restaurant ventures.
Sips Coffee Truck is a Parkersburg-based business that, apart from serving up a hot cup of joe in the morning, provides customers with good conversations. Midge’s Hot Dogs gives the people of Wheeling an opportunity to share their stories while enjoying street food. Twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur Mallory Moholt delivers fresh produce to the streets of Morgantown with Mal’s Fresh Produce. Artisan bread and pastry maker Eleanor Marshall celebrates the local food culture of Fayetteville while selling a modern take on traditional Appalachian baked goods.
SIPS COFFEE TRUCK
Jen Allman in Parkersburg, WV
What have you observed while entering the growing coffee and food truck culture present in Appalachia?
Jen Allman: People in Appalachia often still have the more traditional perception of a coffee truck as “less than” compared to a brick-and-mortar store. We really wanted to elevate the idea of a coffee truck, so when creating our branding and logo, we hired a local artist who really helped us hone in on what we wanted. We want to show that a coffee truck isn’t “less than,” because some really spectacular things can come from trucks for both food and coffee! It’s an innovative way for people to try things and be more creative than a traditional restaurant.
With so many food deserts in Appalachia, what’s the importance of a locally owned business in the area instead of a chain?
JA: People will come just to get a black coffee, and we’ll end up having a conversation for 15 or
20 minutes. I think that’s what’s really made us as successful as we have been in the last two months.
People have just been wanting that connection. We have a lot of customers who are still working from home, and they have told us how they just needed to get out of the house. For them, we provide a nice excuse to drive someplace, get out of their car, order coffee and have a conversation.
Giving people opportunities to connect is much more friendly than going through a drive-thru. A really popular thing right now in our area is Starbucks and other big coffee shops where you just drive through, get your coffee and leave. I can’t tell you how many people have been thrilled simply because I ask them, ‘How do you like your coffee?’ when usually they just get handed their drink and then drive away. The customer knows it’s about more than just a cup of coffee.
MIDGE’S HOT DOGS
Melissa Rebholz in Wheeling, WV
What was it like transitioning from cooking more “elevated” dishes in the restaurant setting to serving up street food?
Melissa Rebholz: It’s been a little weird for me because most of my other food is farm-to-table. When I went to culinary school, it was vegan and vegetarian-focused, with an emphasis on whole grains and whole foods. The transition is interesting for me because hot dogs are so different.
I mean, they are a staple food. I grew up eating hot dogs, but they are much different than the farm-to-fork salads I would make in a restaurant. I think people in Wheeling have been attracted to the stand because there’s not much street-corner food in Wheeling, while you can find a lot of healthy, sit-down dining establishments downtown. One day, people were just standing at my cart eating their hotdogs, and one of them said, “Oh, I feel like I’m in a big city standing in the street.”
What differences have you noticed cooking on street corners instead of in a traditional restaurant?
MR: After I graduated culinary school, I worked on a farm for 12 years. It was a big lifestyle change for me to go back to working in restaurants and kitchens after spending hours a week working outside. I like the cart because I’m working outside again, and I really enjoy talking to people. Working at a cart puts you in a vulnerable position because you’re a person that people can talk to, and can’t walk away. One day, I was working near a funeral home, and a guy came out of it and told me all about the funeral arrangements he was making for himself because he was dying of cancer. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but personally, I think that feeding people is a really personal and intimate act. Your family typically fed you, and I feel like when I’m talking about things I’ve made, people feel open to talk to me. So that’s been really interesting because I didn’t expect to have these deep conversations over hot dogs. It’s been an unexpected perk.
Artisan Baker in Fayetteville, WV
How do you support and grow Appalchia’s food culture through your business?
Eleanor Marshall: My philosophy right now is utilizing local ingredients for what I make out of my home. I bake out of my home kitchen, so the focus of the recipes that I’m developing and the products I’m sharing feature simple, local, seasonal ingredients. In my bread and many pastries, I use freshly milled stoneground flour from a mill in Virginia called Deep Roots Milling. They are fresh milling regional grains, and it’s like night and day to work with that fresh flour compared to something store-bought. I have a day job at a different local food nonprofit called Nero’s Community Farm, and I love the local and seasonal fruits I’ve been able to get my hands on through them. I’ve been taking advantage of their raspberry bushes on top of their peaches, nectarines and apples, plus chives and peppers that have all gone into my sweet and savory baked goods.
Are there any unique, Appalachian-based dishes you sell?
EM: A huge part of what I’ve been doing this year is learning and teaching the Appalachian craft of saltrising bread. Salt-rising bread has this funky, cheesy umami flavor, and it’s this brick-like square-looking loaf that’s dense and rich and super unique tasting. When you make the starter, it is super stinky, and not like how sourdough kind of smells like bananas; it’s almost like a garbage-y type of smell. So it has this super bizarre fermentation, and I was curious about this, so I learned how to make the bread. I also felt a responsibility as a person who has really put down roots in Appalachia to learn how to make this dish. There are definitely some other Appalachians, like bakers and chefs, who are doing a lot to revive the salt-rising tradition, but it is still dying. There are pretty few people who are still stewarding this knowledge, so I definitely want to be one of them.
What is the importance of carrying on these unique Appalachian food traditions?
EM: There are a lot of people I teach how to cook salt-rising bread who have really vivid childhood memories of a grandparent or a parent making it in their home. Because the bread is so unique, it’s so evocative for people and brings up such rich and vivid memories. It’s been incredible to be an audience to some food stories while learning and teaching about salt-rising bread.
Not everything I’m making is a traditional Appalachian recipe, but I really try to make food that represents the way this place is alive to me. I love to connect with the people who are producing food here through my recipes and be a part of the small world of people who are producing and sharing abundance here. I would argue that there’s a rich Appalachian story in every dish that adds to the beautiful patchwork of food in the area.
MAL’S FRESH PRODUCE
Mallary Moholt in Morgantown, WV
How does your produce stand and store the community of Morgantown to the products local farmers have to offer?
Mallory Moholt: It’s all about the relationships that we have with our farmers and ultimately, the trust that’s been established between the community and us. That’s the main thing that has allowed us to grow. I started out buying from someone who was getting old produce from farmers in the area. However, I needed to have more things than just produce at the stand, such as eggs and other staple foods that we eat every single day. I began working with local farmers and other producers in the area to get not only fresh produce but freshly baked sourdough bread, canned items, jellies, local cheese, local meat, local fish and even tropical fruits. Now, the stands are like one-stop shops, and we’ve gotten to that point because we continue working with our local farmers to keep a consistent quality in our product. I tell all my customers we’ve come full circle as a business. I’ve got farmers who expect me to be there for them and are confident in me because we’ve built credibility.
How does your produce stand provide a different customer experience than a chain grocery store?
MM: With our model, it’s a great and convenient way to shop local every single day on your way home from work. Our roadside stands remain a strong model because of the convenience, but ultimately, we are successful because of the high-quality products we carry. With it being a roadside stand, it’s extremely convenient, and customers also love the unique experience in it. Our storefront is in a carport building, which provides a great, unique vibe to our community.
The customers also love that we’re young and doing something that requires a lot of hard work. At our stands, it’s 12 hours out in the sun every day, with hundreds of people coming through every day. The customers see the work we are putting in to create this experience and appreciate that.
What advice would you give to someone starting up their own independent food endeavor?
MM: I grew this business to what I have today from just $1,000 because I’ve ignored those seeking to detract from what I’ve accomplished. I don’t let the ‘haters’ out there push me down; I let them push me even further. The business can be very cutthroat, especially nowadays, people don’t care about you. I’ve had competition come into the area, but ultimately, there’s enough for everybody, and that didn’t affect us.
I’ve learned so far that if you want something good in life, it’s not going to be easy. It takes resilience. It takes consistency. And it takes never giving up so you can keep moving forward to become what you want to be.