What’s it like to launch a business during a pandemic? If your business is a food truck, you might be in luck.
Rosa Ko is the owner of a new food truck on Fort Wayne’s streets called RoKo’s Kitchen, serving up globally inspired cuisine and catering for HT2. Rosa Ko
While her food truck doesn’t have an official menu yet, customers can typically order dishes such as sweet and spicy chicken, braised pork belly, and vegetarian stir fry. RoKo’s also serves bubble tea and rotating cheesecakes.
Ko held her truck’s official grand opening at Georgetown Square on June 28, with a soft opening the day before at the Boys & Girls Club, just as Indiana was reemerging from a shutdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But despite how the pandemic has hurt brick-and-mortar restaurants, Ko experienced unexpected success at her soft opening.
“I sold out,” she says. “I had so many friends come and support me. Probably like 70 people. I didn’t even know I had that many friends then.”
It’s part of a trend across the U.S. in the summer of 2020. While restaurants are reeling from the pandemic, food trucks could be key to keeping the food industry afloat, Business Insider predicts.
While Ko planned to open her truck long before the pandemic began, operating a food truck business during a pandemic allows her to easily adapt with the times, offering outdoor dining and takeout amidst ever-changing restrictions.
“I wear a mask, hairnet, and gloves when I’m operating,” she says. “We feel relatively safe. For the most part, people are wearing masks. I feel really bad for all the restaurants that don’t have outdoor seating because I know this has been a really painful time for them.”
Steak fajita tacos by RoKo's Kitchen.
Ko is a Chicago native, but she relocated to Fort Wayne for a position with Schneider Electric. She has a degree in supply chain management from Iowa State University, but has always had a passion for cooking, earning her chops working for her family’s restaurants in Chicago.
“My parents are immigrants from Taiwan, and my entire life, they encouraged my brother and I to go to college and get a normal job, so we wouldn’t have to work as hard as they did their entire lives,” Ko says.
Ironically, after she went to college, earned her degree, and got a fulltime job at a Fortune 500 company, she discovered that her calling is in the restaurant business after all.
“Now I realize all that I want to do is be in the food industry,” Ko says, and the connections she’s made in Fort Wayne have helped her get there.
Chips and salsa from RoKo's Kitchen.
Shortly after moving to the city, Ko was encouraged by a coworker to run a 510k race at the Joseph Decuis Farm in nearby Columbia City.
“I was running and noticed that there was this very unique-looking, tall, silver-haired guy,” she says. “We finished within about 20 seconds of each other. I saw him again about half an hour later carrying wood logs on the property, so I offered to help since I didn’t know anyone.”
It turns out, that runner was Pete Eshelman, the Owner of Joseph Decuis Farm as well as the renowned farm-to-fork Restaurant and Emporium in Roanoke. Pete and his wife, Alice Eshelman, ended up inviting Ko to be a guest chef at Joseph Decuis Restaurant for a special fundraiser event they were hosting. Initially, Ko asked her mother to join her for the occasion, but she had been experiencing health issues that led to her closing the family’s restaurant in Chicago.
“I always knew my mom as a worker my entire life,” Ko says. “Even my aunt’s in Taiwan would tell me that she would come home from high school and work at the family store until 11 p.m. I started getting nervous, wondering: What is she going to do now?”
Rosa Ko was a guest chef at Joseph Decuis where she shared dishes from her Taiwanese heritage.
While she was concerned about her mother’s health, Ko didn’t want to break the promise she made to the Eshelmans. So she compiled recipes from her mother and father and from her aunts and grandmother in Taiwan and created a menu of staple foods from her culture.
“I took this opportunity and made it in honor of my Taiwanese heritage and the family recipes that I grew up with,” she says. “There’s something about food, where it’s not just sustaining you physically, but there’s an aspect to it that nurtures you in an emotional state because of what it represents or who’s feeding you.”
Ko says the guest chef experience was a pivotal moment in her life and career. It allowed her to assist with raising $2,800 for Blessings in a Backpack, an organization that provides meals to school-age children on the weekends, where they may not be able to access food outside of school. It also opened doors for her to begin catering at HT2 in 2018, where she has been working ever since.
Pupusa, salsa, and tamales by RoKo's Kitchen.
Ko began doing her research to open her own food truck in 2019 by reaching out to some of the other food truck owners in Fort Wayne. She purchased her truck in February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Fort Wayne in mid-March. Luckily, she was still able to open four months later, and she’s been thankful to all of her mentors and supporters in Fort Wayne’s food community who have helped her along the way.
“I got their experiences, lessons learned, where they got their trucks from,” Ko says. “It’s been really great. Jonny Perez, from Mercadito, helped me a lot and talked me through a lot of things and was a good mentor.”
She says the most challenging aspect of launching a food truck has been going through the permit process. Otherwise, she has felt lucky to have access to the knowledge and support of her friends and family. Although, she jokes that if her mother wasn’t in Chicago and was within slapping distance, she would smack her for the added stress that running the truck has caused during this time.
“It feels like God is shoving me whether I want to or not,” Ko says. “In any other point in my life prior to this, I would have hesitated, especially seeing how stressed out my mom had been and what a toll (the restaurant business) took on her health. I had every reason to say, ‘No, and just stick with my good paying, good benefit job that I am accustomed to with a Fortune 500 company that I could build a lifelong career in.’”
But her passion and spirit of determination wouldn’t allow her to settle. Even so, she plans to continue her employment with Schneider Electric and maintain the food truck seasonally, along with catering for HT2 part-time.
“My plan was just to get my feet wet this year,” she says. “That was it, and I’m already stretching a little bit beyond that.”
Ko says she is gracious for the assistance and encouragement that she has received from the Fort Wayne community and surrounding areas from day one. And there’s no telling what the future might hold.
“I really love Fort Wayne,” she says. “In all honesty, I’ve never encountered such an encouraging atmosphere for entrepreneurship and for women in business.”