Carrie Summer’s signature Indian-spiced organic mini donuts came about because her boss at Spoonriver "implored us to create a product for the Mill City Farmers Market" next to her restaurant in Minneapolis.
"Brenda [Langton, owner of Spoonriver] wanted crepes," Summer’s partner Lisa Carlson explains, adding that she suspected crepes were more a personal preference than an in-demand item.
Summer, a pastry chef, decided to cash in on a dream. "I’ve always dreamed of [making] a mini donut modern," she says.
Setting up shop at the farmer’s market, however, wasn’t without risk. For one thing, donuts can be challenging to make. "They take focus," she says. And for another, it required investing in an expensive donut machine.
But word of mouth — especially from Star Tribune restaurant reviewer Rick Nelson’s lips to consumers’ ears — spread. "We went from giving them away to hour-long lines," Carlson says.
And they went from working for others to investing all their travel savings in a trailer so they could sell made-from-scratch food at farmers markets. They now own three food trucks and two stand-alone restaurants. Even more impressive is that both brick-and-mortar restaurants came about within a year of each other.
Both chefs have had the good fortune — is it good fortune when you work really hard? — to train under celebrated chefs in the Twin Cities, New York and San Francisco. They met when Carlson hired Summer as her sous chef at Barbette in Minneapolis.
The couple got into the thriving food truck business early in the game. Their food, which includes the mini donuts, plus bison burgers topped with a fried egg and pulled-pork nachos, has been included on some pretty notable national lists, such as Bon Appétit’s and Saveur’s lists of memorable market meals.
When they couldn’t find suitable property in the Twin Cities, the two invested in a turnkey restaurant in Bay City, Wisconsin, opening Chef Shack. Barn wood salvaged from Summer’s childhood home adorn walls and the decorative doors on the outside of the building are the gates her champion horses once stood behind. She also borrowed from her antique collection to add personality to the space.
Chef Shack is a popular spot off Great River Road — on which 7 million cars are said to travel down from May to October — but it’s also the couple’s retirement plan.
Buying, rather than leasing, the building was paramount, Carlson says, because "chefs all around the world" invest so much of their time, talent and reputation into a restaurant and if they don’t own the building, they can be out in the street or at the mercy of significant rent hikes.
The chefs describe their food as "ranch rustic, country French."
The menu at their latest restaurant, Chef Shack Ranch in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, is more along the lines of "healthy truck-stop food," if the truck stop is into fresh produce and scratch cooking.
While they’re chefs first, they also see themselves as mentors and educators. "We like cooks who interact with customers," Summer says. They believe in paying a living wage to their staff and more than minimum wage to their servers. Tips are a bonus, Summer contends, not part of their salary.
Summer teaches the cooks how to drive the food trucks — her advice is to take it slow, since when they’re loaded down stopping takes longer. And they demand cooks taste the food they’re preparing several steps along the way to ensure it’s perfect. The two have even been known to quiz employees to help them grow their food knowledge. They also feed their own brains. "We still try to step into kitchens when we travel," Summer says. "It’s a never-ending learning experience."
3 Tbsp champagne vinegar
1 Tbsp pomegranate juice
½ shallot, minced
½ tsp fresh cracked pepper
1 pinch white sugar
1 Tbsp cranberry puree
Combine all ingredients into a shallow bowl and serve immediately with fresh oysters. This is great for holiday oyster entertaining.