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Sweet Success

Shantella Y. Sherman | 12/21/2010, 3:22 p.m.
Gourmet Foods Go Mobile...
Carlos Garrett, driver and product development specialist for Sidewalk Sweetsations prepares a cupcake and pie order for one of his thousands of customers visiting the Yellow Cool Bus. Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman

Gourmet Foods Go Mobile

Ronald Shelley leans against a streetlight outside the Navy Yard metro station. He is among a crowd of people filling the sidewalk along New Jersey Avenue in Southeast, making it look as if one of the office buildings buffering the Washington Navy Yard has been evacuated. There is no life-threatening emergency, Shelley, 43, explains, just a mad dash to the block to get lunch from two favored vendors, Goode's Mobile Kitchen and Sidewalk Sweetsations.

Shelley is among the growing number of federal government employees whose offices moved into developing neighborhoods and who typically rely on a small spattering of fast food establishments for daytime meals. The Navy Yard corridor, once slated to become a thriving gateway into the city, has instead become a transitioning space of condos-turned-luxury-apartments, modestly occupied corporate offices, and empty lots. For Shelley and the thousands of workers employed there, food options was limited to Five Guys hamburgers, Subway sandwiches, and picnic fare from Starbucks, until the mobile units turned up.

"Goode's has the absolute best chicken kabobs I have ever tasted. They also do a mean curry," Shelley said. "While I'm waiting for my kabobs, I step down to Sweetsations and get the best potato pie I've had since my grandmother passed. Not only is the food good, but it is also fresh."
Shelley said that it also didn't hurt that the owners of both mobile units, Khari Pierce (Goode's) and Deedra Osborne (Sidewalk Sweetsations) are African American.

Deedra Osborne's Sweet Potato Dream Pies have become the rage across the East Coast. Courtesy Photo
"I believe in supporting Black businesses, especially when they are as magnificent as these two. Both have young Black men as the face of their businesses and that is as important to the entrepreneurial spirit as money. It makes me proud to see them doing positive things that can inspire other young African Americans to do the same," Shelley said.

For Pierce and Osborne, business acumen runs parallel to great, generationally-inspired products.

"I noticed a lot of trucks packaged their food where they prepare it at night then sell the food the next day. I wanted to be different. I always cooked for my family and friends but cooking for the public was different and scary. My mother's side of my family is from Barbados, so I used my uncle and aunts traditional and soul food recipes. I learned by watching my grandmother. My thought was if I mix the two I can create a niche," Pierce, 35, said.

And that he did. But going mobile, Pierce said, was strictly good business sense for he and his brother, Lou, 28.

"We started Goode's Mobile because we always wanted a restaurant but knew the costs was too great. I saw a few trucks in D.C. and researched the idea. I found that a mobile unit was much more affordable. I also found that a lot of restaurants fail in the first six months due to overhead, start-up costs, and lack of business. The mobile truck is less of a gamble," Pierce said.

The mobile unit also paid off big when a friend made him aware of the "lunch deserts" created by under-developed business districts in the city.
"I think people want a variety of foods and they want it on the go. I can offer new things on my menu everyday and it's something for which people can look forward. As much as people love Subway or Five Guys or pizza, they also love home-cooked meals. I can offer that in a timely manner," Pierce said.

Corliss Jones, another of Goode's devotees, said that she was sold on the product after sneaking a bite from a co-worker. Jones, 52, said she noticed immediately the difference in quality.

"I have health concerns and can't eat just anything, especially off of some truck. I am managing my salt intake and could tell that this food was being marinated and I was being asked what types of seasoning - if any - I wanted on my food. That's how fresh it is," Jones said.

Lines of Goode's Mobile Kitchen and Sidewalk Sweetsations customers wait to place and pick up orders on New Jersey Avenue in Southeast. Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman
Pierce, a Boston native, said that being conscious of their customer's health needs is part of the Goode's service goal.

"All of our food is cooked with olive oil and we do not serve any pork or beef. We take time to create all of our sauces and recipes. We use lean turkey meat for our burgers and chili and only chicken breast for our jerk and curry. We do this because we love to cook and love the interaction with our customers. We need to keep them healthy," Pierce said.

Pierce said that Goode's is developing a new line of vegetarian dishes to premiere after Christmas. And while a restaurant may still be in the cards down the road, Pierce said the immediate goal is more trucks.

The connection between Goode's and Sidewalk Sweetsations is more than shared pavement. Pierce and Osborne met at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) while their mobile units were being inspected. Pierce said that he believed that having a mobile unit selling Caribbean-soul food next to one selling pies and cupcakes created a perfect match.

"While people wait for their food in my line they can grab some sweets," Pierce said.

Like Pierce, the Osborne recipes and business is multi-generational and began with the overwhelming demands friends had for a sweet potato pie.

"My grandmother, Mattie McLaurin, created the Sweet Potato Dream Pie recipe in Fayetteville, N.C. She was a wonderful baker and knew flavor combinations that were incredible. My mother Mabel Osborne, of Philadelphia, took the recipe and changed the texture of the pie, which is why it is so creamy and smooth," Osborne said.

The recipe was later passed to her and when a friend, Deborah Smith, created a special graham crust to compliment the pie mixture, a star among pastries was born. All of the products carry enticing names that beckon curious passersby.

One fan, Pam Cuthbert of Rockville, Md., said she fell in love with the sweet potato pies after leaving a nightclub one evening and purchasing a miniature palm-sized version, known as a "cup-pie."

"It is just enough to satisfy the sweet tooth and keep you from packing on the calories. After that first one, I started buying the whole pies for holidays," Cuthbert said.

Favorites among the New Jersey Avenue fans are hard to gauge as most tend to leave the truck with a dozen or so items at a time. Big sellers are the Vanilla Gold Rush, Chocolate on the Rocks, Luscious Lemon Squeeze, and the Red Velvet Now cupcakes, the Sweet Potato Dream cup-pie, and Aunt Foo's Rum & Coke on The Rocks cuptail. Cuptails are cocktail flavored cupcakes that, while non-alcoholic, combine the sweet and sinful into a few delicious bites.

For Osborne, who retired from Verizon Communications after 29 years as a Silver Spring-based service manager, Sidewalk Sweetsations was an opportunity for her to follow her dream and simultaneously sow a few for family members.

"There are four generations of my family and friends involved in this business. And it is really about these young, innovative, creative minds that have been able to take some ideas and recipes written down on paper, and create a business. They have been able to take things to a whole new level," Osborne said.

That new level includes Osborne's nephews Kwan and Kenon Benton, managing pivotal day-to-day operations of the business, from New Jersey, through social media.

"Sidewalk Sweetsations is Twitter and Facebook-driven. It helps us keep our customer base informed with product specials, truck locations, flavor of the day, and product sell-outs. Kwan, 35 is our social network specialist and controls all aspects of social networking including updates, replies, product specials and vital flavor/location information. His brother, Kenon is our logo/branding design specialist. He is only 30," Osborne said.

Add to the roster of employees and directors, Carlos Garrett, the driver/product development specialist and truck maintenance and repairman Jerome Deas both of Upper Marlboro, Md. and Verizon retirees, and it becomes clear how Sidewalk Sweetsations manages to bake fresh products daily and deliver to four states (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and Maryland) and D.C. - most special orders with as little as 72-hours notice.

"These young, Black men are a powerful force that propel this business. They are an excellent example of how good business incorporates the wisdom and tradition of one generation, the modern tweeking of another, and the new-age technology of yet another. And we do it all with love," Osborne said.