Catholic couple truck food and faith around the metro

| August 17, 2018 | 0 Comments

Kelly Leahy pulls a batch of cheese curds from the fryer inside his food truck during a Summer Tuesday event in Stillwater Aug. 14. In the back background is his son, Gabriel, who also does cooking. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

On a warm, cloudy evening at Lowell Park in Stillwater Aug. 14, the smell of frying batter hung heavy in the air as Kelly Leahy stood over a vat of oil inside his food trailer.

He pulled two metal fryer baskets from the oil, shook them vigorously and poured their contents onto a stainless steel tray.

Another order of cheese curds was ready for consumption during a Stillwater “Summer Tuesday” event. Hungry customers waited for the molten morsels at a window manned by a few Leahy family members and friends.

In the midst of the activity, a 2-foot tall statue of Mary looked on.

For Kelly, his wife, Nancy, and son, Gabriel, the sweat and labor they put into events throughout the metro area during summer and fall are as much about faith as they are about food.

It begins with prayer when they arrive at a venue, and their time serving fast food is infused with an intentional spirituality that often leads to conversations about God with their customers.

All patrons need to do is ask: What do the letters “JMJ” on the white trailer stand for?

With a smile beaming through his thick beard, Kelly, who is in formation for the permanent diaconate, provides the answer: Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

The family’s journey into this fast-paced, food truck world began near the end of 2011, when Kelly lost feeling in his right arm while with a client in his part-time job as a personal care assistant.

That eventually led to a diagnosis of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which causes weakness and, in some cases, paralysis. He was diagnosed in January 2012, and doctors initially told him he would no longer be able to work either his PCA job or his job as a driver for Quicksilver Express Courier. By that point, he couldn’t lift his right arm, and both legs were so weak he couldn’t walk.

Over the next few months, he spent hours in his living room recovering and regaining his strength, going from a wheelchair to a walker and, finally, to a cane. It gave him plenty of time for silence and prayer. He asked God to help him find a new line of work.

One day, the idea popped into his head — buy a food truck.

“I started researching it. I ordered a book,” said Kelly, 54, whose family attends Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Maplewood. “It became very serious in my prayers, and it became very serious in my thoughts, almost consuming at times.”

During Holy Week that year, he went on a retreat at Pacem in Terris near Isanti with his mother to take time away to pray and ask if the Lord wanted him to pursue food on wheels. He got a “very clear” answer the first night, he said, and he came home a few days later ready to charge full steam into the new venture. Nancy’s love of cooking brought her on board easily.

The next step was finding a food truck or trailer. Their search led them to two women who had decided to get out of the business. When Kelly and Nancy went to look at the pickup truck and trailer in summer 2012, they found a visible sign — a statue of St. Joseph on a shelf above the sink inside the trailer.

“I just smiled, and I walked out holding it up,” Kelly said. “I … said, ‘Whose statue of St. Joseph is this?’ And, the two women that owned the trailer both looked down, and were like, ‘Well, we have a Catholic friend that said if we put that in there, it’ll sell.’”

They were right. Just two weeks later, the Leahys were at Sonshine Festival, a Christian music event then held in Willmar, selling cheese curds, chicken bites, and macaroni and cheese on a stick. They agreed to pay the trailer’s $45,500 asking price over 48 months, but they finished about halfway through.

They have sold food at up to 37 events a season, which runs from July through October. Three of their four children have helped, with Gabriel, their youngest, currently putting in the most time. He graduated in June from St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, and he will soon leave for his freshman year at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he will join his brother, Michael, 20.

“Adults have all been amazed at Gabriel,” Kelly said, noting that his son started working at age 11. “And they could not understand why an 11-year-old, 12-year-old, 13-year-old would rather be doing this than playing video games.”

Gabriel likes it so much that he said “it’s going to be hard” to leave it behind when school starts. But, he is pondering the possibility of bringing the trailer to campus and running it in Bismarck with Michael to earn money for tuition.

“We’ll talk to the school; maybe they’ll let us do it at sporting events,” said Gabriel, who wants to earn a doctorate in theology and teach at a seminary someday. “But, we might … just set up on the street or in a parking lot.”

The full name of the Leahys’ food truck is “JMJ Rocks, Come to the Table.” Kelly and Nancy run it as a team, with Nancy doing much of the cooking, with help from Gabriel, and Kelly serving as a gofer. He jumps in to relieve workers so they can take breaks, and gathers product and other supplies as needed. But, he spends most of his time outside the trailer, which is where spiritual conversations can — and often, do — take place.

“I love the interaction with people,” Kelly said.

Often, it starts when customers notice the St. Joseph statue, which still resides in the trailer, or the well-worn statue of Mary, which is visible through a window. They also once had a crucifix that hung above the service window. It generated plenty of comments, both positive and negative, until it was stolen in 2014.

Now, it’s mostly Mary that generates the feedback, and cheese curd lovers do not seem to mind her presence in the trailer, Kelly said.

“Never had a negative [comment]” he said.

Another visible symbol are the faith messages on T-shirts they wear, often from Extreme Faith Camp. Starting in 2002, Kelly was one of three organizers at the annual Catholic summer camp for youth, held at sites in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Now, he is scaling back so he can devote more time to the food business, which is an important source of revenue for the family. Last year, food sales reached $37,000.

They now are moving more into events like parish festivals, where they give back some of the proceeds to the parishes hosting them. They also offer discounts to priests, religious, and men and women in uniform. It may reduce the bottom line, but they’re OK with that.

“We’re not in it for the money,” Kelly said. “God’s got a plan, God’s got it figured out, and he’s got it taken care of. I don’t have to worry about anything.”

As they make the final push to end the season, Nancy, who works full time as a currency wire transfer specialist, will keep trying to perfect her cheese curd batter recipe. She won’t rest until it matches the award-winning batter they now buy. They want to make sure this food item stays at the top of their list of customers’ favorites.

They feel so passionate about the curds that they turned down the chance this year to be a street vendor near the State Fair. They were told they couldn’t make cheese curds because the vendor next to them was going to sell them.

“Nancy made it clear: Cheese curds or bust,” Kelly said.

So, they now get a short break before their next event, the Transfiguration parish festival in Oakdale Sept. 8. Two more events are Stagecoach Days Sept. 14-16 near their home in Wyoming, and Stillwater Harvest Fest Oct. 13-14. They end their season with a wedding in St. Michael Oct. 20.

As they look back on this year’s season, they will remember the impact they had not only on customers, but also on other food vendors. At one community event, a woman approached them and said, “You know, you guys are the holiest people here. … I have to watch my mouth because you guys are holy,’” Nancy recalled. “I started to laugh.”

Kelly noted that there are many instances inside the trailer when Nancy can be heard shouting one of her favorite phrases: “Praise be to God.”

This is an extension of how they start every day in the food trailer — with prayer. According to Kelly, it goes something like this: “Lord, whoever you are going to put in our path today, let us mirror you. Let us see you in each and every person who comes to each window or comes to the door. Let us see you in them. And please, let them see you in us.”


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Category: Local News