Friday, August 20, 2010
WALLA WALLA -- It will probably be no surprise to the foodophiles of Walla Walla that Andrae Bopp is on the verge of opening a new mobile kitchen.
This is by design. Both the wayfaring food wagon and the buzz.
Bopp is a French Culinary Institute-trained chef who worked in New York City and Boise before moving to Walla Walla with a vision of opening a downtown restaurant and serving his gourmet creations to the masses a couple of years ago. The timing couldn't have been worse.
Around him restaurants were closing their doors at an alarming rate. Five in just a period of a couple of weeks. Bopp held off to assess the market conditions. Then the recession hit.
He took a position as an assistant winemaker with Dusted Valley Vintners. But he never stopped cooking. In fact, he was hired to prepare one meal after another -- winemaker dinners in the vineyards, private events, catered affairs for clients from Walla Walla to Seattle.
Along the way, he amassed an e-mail list with more than 1,000 people and far-reaching social network that allows him to share updates on his latest food ventures with the posting of a few typed lines.
Then the idea came. Bopp -- rhymes with "hope" -- decided if a bricks-and-mortar restaurant isn't in the stars right now, he could have a custom-made kitchen that he takes to the people with whom he communicates via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and more.
The sensibility combines two major movements in food: mobility and messaging. In this case, though, Bopp, 45, won't be terribly hard to find. Four days a week, he plans to operate his unit -- known as "Andrae's Kitchen" -- in front of the old terminal building at the Walla Walla Regional Airport. His soft opening is expected sometime this month with a grand opening in September.
On weekends, his base will be near Woodward Canyon and L'Ecole No 41. He also plans to circulate among an array of wineries, which is where the communication with consumers comes into play. The concept is exactly like the popular Skillet Street Food mobile unit in Seattle.
His 153-square-foot custom kitchen rolled into town from a Mississippi manufacturer last weekend. Built in an 8 1/2-by-18-foot trailer, the unit is equipped with a six-burner range with convection oven, a 24-inch Charbroiler, a 24-inch flat-top, and a 40-pound deep fryer.
Bopp's curbside cuisine will showcase local ingredients from a Walla Walla Farmers Market Salad to burgers made from Thundering Hooves beef. The menu he's been tinkering with includes a risotto of the day for $6.50, a three-cheese mac and cheese dish for $5.50 -- $7.50 if you add his applewood smoked bacon -- and "AK's" Special of the Day, which includes for $10.50 whatever Bopp is in the mood to make.
"It could be a foie gras terrine," Bopp said matter-of-factly.
This concept was billed in a "Walla Street Journal" piece a little more than a year ago as "the new breed of lunch truck." Gourmet, tech-savvy and politically correct is how the article described the mobile units that serve sustainably harvested foods from gourmet chefs on the streets stretching from Los Angeles to New York.
New to Walla Walla, however, Bopp found himself explaining the concept to Port of Walla Walla officials as he negotiated his lease a couple of weeks ago.
"Mobile food seems to be the hot thing right now," he told commissioners.
Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz said the idea of gourmet food from a mobile kitchen may be a hard sell to many of the potential customers working at the airport industrial park businesses. Especially when an attempt by a taco wagon to operate in the same location a while back lasted just a few short months.
But Bopp said he's not worried about losing clients to the drive-through windows of major chains. They're not exactly the same target market, he said. Plus the kitchen is already booked for the next two years for special wine weekends," he said.
And if it doesn't work out, Bopp is comforted to know there's always another curb where he can pull up.
"Here's the beauty of it," he said. "If it doesn't work here, it's on wheels."
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.