New ‘Food Truck Fridays’ in Fort Wayne help people with Down syndrome earn work experience

Summer is food truck season in Fort Wayne, and this year, there’s a new event in town geared toward helping individuals with Down syndrome gain work experience by preparing and serving food aboard a local truck.

Food Truck Fridays is a new partnership between GiGi’s Playhouse and various Fort Wayne food trucks.

As a national organization headquartered in Hoffman Estates, IL, GiGi’s Playhouse opened its first Northeast Indiana location in Fort Wayne about five years ago, serving 25 area families. Since then, it has grown to serve 305 families, helping individuals with Down syndrome from cradle-to-career with programs like free tutoring, fitness training, and on-the-job work experience.

Each Friday this summer, starting May 7, GiGi’s will be hosting a couple of food trucks at its location at 6081 N. Clinton St. to help its career training participants, known as ambassadors, earn job experience by feeding the Fort Wayne community.
From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the food trucks will offer specialties, ranging from snacks and desserts to full lunch menus. GiGi’s will also be making smoothies via its Genesis Health Bar and selling them on-site, too.

Megan Lock and Steve Mikulski work on the Trolley Food Truck.

From Salsa Grill to King Arthur’s Trolley and more, the local food trucks participating in Food Truck Fridays will be doing double duty. As they dish out great food, they will also be teaching GiGi’s ambassadors the ins and outs of the food truck industry. Each truck will have one or two ambassadors on board, helping to take orders and serve food.

“We just want to help out to give these people a chance (to gain experience),” says Ashlynn Armstrong, a catering assistant with Salsa Grill.

Armstrong is also the coordinator for the Salsa Grill food truck and is helping to plan the training work on her team’s truck.

“We’re going to train them to do things like roll burritos,” she says. “Basically, (we’re treating them) like they’re working at a Salsa Grill location.”

Cameron Shomo works in the Salsa Grille Food Truck.

GiGi’s Playhouse in Fort Wayne works with families and individuals from all over Northeast Indiana, Southeast Michigan, and Northwest Ohio. But in 2020, the pandemic is shaking up how GiGi’s operates, which led to the creation of its Food Truck Fridays, too.

According to Mandy Drakeford, Executive Director of GiGi’s Playhouse in Fort Wayne, the center was closed in March 2020 at the onset of COVID-19. Then, to meet the essential needs of its clientele, it quickly reopened.

“In a week, we had shifted to virtual programs,” Drakeford says. Drakeford

In 2021, GiGi’s has been operating on a hybrid model of programs with options for both in-person and online participation, according to their personal preferences. Drakeford says the addition of a virtual option has helped her team better meet the needs of local families who may not be able to attend in person each week. It’s also expanded its reach beyond the Fort Wayne area. As a network, GiGi’s is now serving families in 45 different countries and throughout the United States.
“It’s been incredible to see this growth,” Drakeford says.

While GiGi’s online offerings have extended its reach, one of its key programs hit a rocky patch during the pandemic: Its ambassador program, which helps individuals with Down syndrome gain career training.

“In cities like Fort Wayne, there’s a real lack of opportunities for adults with Down syndrome after high school,” Drakeford says. “We want to make sure our ambassadors can find employment in our community if they decide that’s the right path for them.”

The GiGi’s Genesis Health Bar (housed within the GiGi’s Playhouse) has previously provided a work experience for ambassadors, but when the pandemic and shutdown began, the restaurant’s business model was affected.

The re-opening of Indiana has helped GiGi’s Health Bar resume its operations, but planners like Drakeford are eager to find more ways to give ambassadors work experience and increase their visibility in the community. Thus, the idea for a mobile food operation was born.

Drakeford credits King Arthur’s Food Trolley as being “really helpful in creating our food bar.” Now, these innovators and others are helping GiGi’s start its Food Truck Friday events, which Drakeford considers a test-run for GiGi’s launching its own mobile food operation in the future.

In considering launching a food truck business, Drakeford’s team has been thinking about the type of food that is best suited for making in a truck, as well as the cost of the truck and style of it (whether it would be a truck, trailer, or cart).

 “We’re not looking to close our health bar,” Drakeford says. Instead, she sees Food Truck Fridays as another example of how GiGi’s is pivoting during the pandemic to better meets the needs of its clients and community.

GiGi’s ambassadors are invited to sign up to work on a food truck each week. A total of 25 ambassadors are currently eligible to work at the Health Bar, and many have signed up for the new truck experience, too.

“We’ve had a good response so far,” Drakeford says.

Even so, she’s planning to start Food Truck Fridays small by only contracting two trucks maximum per week. In the future, she says GiGi’s would be happy for other food trucks to join and create a larger event.

To learn about Food Truck Fridays and which food trucks will make an appearance each week, check GiGi’s Facebook page.