NEW ALBANY — A recent competition allowed local kids to learn the basics of building a business as they created their own food truck concepts.
The MESA KIDS Cooking School in downtown New Albany recently wrapped up its first Food Truck Challenge.
The 13-session business program launched in early September, and it allowed students to build their own concepts and plans for a food truck. Students not only developed the menu and cooked the food, but they also learned other entrepreneurial skills such as marketing and branding.
The cooking school officially announced the winners of the competition last week. Charlestown High School Senior Buddy Wixon, 18, took first place in the competition for his “Bearded Barbecue” concept.
By winning first place, Wixon will receive a free booth for one year at the New Albany Farmers Market.
Wixon’s concept includes brisket, ribs and pulled pork, and he serves his sandwiches on Texas toast. He has become skilled in smoking meats over the past few years, and he plans to pursue the culinary field after high school.
“It’s called Bearded Barbecue because I’m 18 and I have a massive beard, and I do barbecue,” he said. “My mom taught me how to cook, and on my 16th birthday, [my parents] bought me a smoker — I fell in love with it.”
Wixon appreciated the support he received for his business, as well as working with others through the program, he said.
“It was nice winning, but it was a little difficult seeing my teammates not win,” he said. “It was a great program.”
Braden Bertl won second place for his “walking cheesecake” concept, and Yanna McCarty won third place for her “mini meals” food truck concept.
Students became certified in ServSafe to learn to safely prepare food in a commercial setting, and each week, the program featured a different speaker teaching students about everything from culinary skills to branding.
They created a menu of three items and calculated the costs of the food, and for their practical examination, they prepared a signature dish.
Liz Martino, managing partner and director of operations at MESA KIDS Cooking School, said “there is not a word to describe how amazing these kids really are.”
“I could probably talk for an hour about how each kid in some way went above and beyond and just blew our minds,” she said. “It varies from the hard skills they learned to the social and emotional aspect.”
Martino said kids usually age out of MESA KIDS Cooking School’s programs at 15, but the school opened up the food truck challenge to older kids, including those who have already completed the courses at the school.
“We teach cooking classes all the time, and for a long time we’ve had the goal of doing some upper level classes for some older kids who already have experience with cooking and things like that,” Martino said.
As the three finalists were announced near the end of the program, the class was split into teams. The students became good friends with each other, Martino said.
Bertl, a student at Highland Hills Middle School, went with one of his favorite desserts for his food truck challenge. He created cheesecakes wrapped in fried cinnamon sugar tortillas.
The menu includes a Fat Elvis cheesecake with peanut butter and marshmallow, a caramel apple chai cheesecake and a cherry confit cheesecake.
“I just really liked cooking the food and getting to experiment with everything,” Bertl said.
McCarty, 17, attends Prosser Career Education Center’s culinary program, and she works as an assistant at MESA KIDS.
Her “mini meals” concept was focused on “home-style family meals and making it into a small portion that’s easy to walk around with.” The menu included a garlic bread cup with spaghetti and homemade meatballs.
“My favorite part was the execution,” McCarty said. “At the end just having to pull it all together and do it and serve it — that was my favorite part,” she said. “I want to have a food truck when I grow up. It won’t be mini meals, but it will be something else — probably desserts or something like that.”
Floyd Central freshman Abby Berger, 15, became involved with MESA KIDS Cooking School as a student, and she now works as an assistant at the school. She came in fourth, and she received a perfect score on her ServSafe test.
Her “Hoosier Harvester” concept included locally-sourced food with produce and meat from Indiana. The menu included mushroom blintzes using her great-grandmother’s crepe recipe, a venison taco with blueberry sauce and a stir fry.
“I liked learning how to actually write a down a recipe, then figure out what it would cost and how to run a business,” she said.
King Williams, 12, created a breakfast food truck concept featuring meals such as pancakes and chicken tenders, a spin on the classic chicken and waffles.
“I felt really good working with other people around my age, and it was a fun experience,” he said. “I actually want to have an old food truck when I get older and make breakfast, so this is a start. I feel like I learned a lot how to cook properly, especially taking the SafeServ.”
The challenge featured many other creative foods, including 15-year-old Keerah Turner’s “storybook snacks,” 12-year-old Derek Bush’s “French toast waffles and 16-year-old Alex Faber’s hearty stews with root vegetables.
Mesa aims to not only create a love of food, but also “instill confidence in children and educate them,” Martino said.
“It really wasn’t just about cooking in here — it was about how do you have an obstacle and overcome it,” she said. “We want to make sure these kids are confident in asking for help, that they can receive help, that they can think creatively and that they can believe in themselves.”
Martino said she wants to sustain a “culture of community-building.”
“We just keep cycling kids through that are educated, knowledgeable and confident — and have the resources and tools to create small businesses and give back to their community,” she said.