Food trucks are often a staple of big city life, but a Vincennes couple has carved out a niche that has local customers coming back for more.
Hidy and Simon Willis own the Thainamite food truck, a kitchen on wheels that has been offering fresh, authentic, Thai food for about a year and half. It is Hidy, a native of Thailand, who is the driving force behind this mobile bistro. She is the chief cook and operations manager.
“I loved the food trucks that are in California and Florida,” she said. “With a food truck you can go everywhere.”
Hidy’s penchant for cooking comes from her mother, who owns Thai restaurants in Japan, as well as her grandmother and other relatives in Thailand. Her special sauces and recipes come directly from her native country.
“I use fresh herbs I grow in my own garden,” she said. “Thai food has a lot of herbs and spices that most don’t get on a daily basis in American food. That’s why people love Thai food. They seem to crave it.”
The Thainamite food truck sets up at various sites around town. Sometimes it’s at the parking lot near Monacle’s Pizza on Willow Street. Other times its at the Hart Street Liquors parking lot along Hart Street. On weekend evenings it’s parked at the Rural King parking lot along Sixth Street. Patrons keep up with their changing locations via Facebook where the business has 2,300 followers.
“We like to change it up,” said Hidy’s husband, Simon. “We’ve been to local festivals downtown and were at the Red Skelton Festival. We went out to the Lincoln High School band camp because they requested us.”
Willis said he bought the former delivery truck in Edwardsport, then spent the better part of a year outfitting it with the necessary kitchen equipment and safety requirements. There is a compact, but full kitchen inside, complete with a gas range, fryers, refrigeration, sinks, and more.
“I thought it was a brilliant idea,” he said. “There are a lot of food trucks in Florida — school buses that are turned into taco trucks.”
Simon and Hidy met in Florida nearly 10 years ago, where they both lived and worked.
“On our first date, I took her to a casino because she always wanted to go and had never been to one,” Willis said. “On the very first quarter she put into a slot machine, she won $80!”
While Willis grew up in Florida, his family still had relatives in Vincennes, and he often visited here. His grandfather, Loren Willis, served as Vincennes Police Chief in the early 1960s.
He and Hidy moved to Vincennes to escape a rising crime rate in West Palm Beach.
“We were broken into five times in one year, and that was too much for me,” he said.
The couple’s original idea for a food truck was to enable them to travel about the country. But Simon’s part-time web designing job turned into permanent fulltime employment, and after researching it, he and Hidy learned that it would be much too difficult to keep pace with the different laws and specifications that regulate restaurants.
However, what was once part-time in Vincennes has turned into nearly a fulltime endeavor. Hidy spends at least three or four hours each evening making preparations for the next day. Some things have to be prepared in advance; most other food is cooked on site in the truck.
During lunch time, Hidy and fellow workers Jum Changmak and Courtney Ivers are busy cooking food, taking orders, and delivering their fare to hungry customers. On a rainy Saturday evening, customers were lining up in the Rural King parking lot to place their orders. New customers are sometimes offered samples.
“When we first opened, we were swamped,” Simon Willis said. “We didn’t have our point-of-sale system yet, so I was trying to write out each order. But we had so many customers — long lines — that I got confused and didn’t know who ordered what. It was chaotic.”
The couple said in the very beginning, a little over a year ago, customers used to follow the truck until it stopped, then come up to order.
“We had cars waiting on us to arrive,” he said.
The menu on the Thainamite food truck changes almost daily, though much of it is the same throughout a season. Hidy says her summer menu will soon be replaced by an autumn menu. Even so, some things on the truck are staples, such as Thainamite’s Pad Thai.
Pad Thai is rice noodles with chicken, egg, tofu, dried shrimp, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, chives, and her special Tamarind sauce. The truck is never without Pad Thai. Another staple is Crab Rangoon (cream cheese, crab, meat, scallions, and shredded carrots wrapped in a wonton and deep-fried). Thai tea is always on the menu, too.
There are appetizers, soups, salads, and entrees – and the entrees vary from lunch to dinner. Exotic-sounding dishes like Pad Kee Mow, Pad See Ew and Pad Kra Pow are on the menu, as well as Cashew Chicken, Pineapple Fried Rice, and a selection of curry dishes. There are desserts, too.
“The Pad Thai recipe is original,” Hidy said. “The sauce is custom made. Everything is fresh.”
Hidy’s first business venture in Vincennes (she earned a master’s degree in business in Thailand), was Hidy’s Deco Shop. She rented a small shop along Main Street where she sold handmade decorative items from Thailand, including artwork. It was short-lived, Simon said, because there wasn’t very much foot traffic.
Then they came up with the food truck idea.
“We thought it was unique,” he said.
Though Hidy sometimes misses the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan area, Simon said they are both happy and content living in Vincennes. He said all the people they have gotten to know, especially their customers, have been very supportive.
“It is quiet, but good here,” Hidy said. “It is different from Florida. People are friendly here.”
Thailand, she says, is the “land of smiles.”
“Vincennes is, too,” she added. “People are polite and sweet here.”
By Bernie Schmitt
For more information, see https://www.facebook.com/thainamitetruck/