The Year of the Tiger
By ANDREW MCGINN
If you ever thought, “You know, what Jefferson really needs is a place that sells Filipino barbecue out the side of an orange short bus that looks like it was jacked from a Cincinnati Bengals tailgate party,” you know what?
You might be right.
“People need this,” Nicole Murphy remembers thinking recently as she walked away from a series of jobs, determined once and for all to be her own boss with her own food truck.
“They may not know it now,” she thought, “but they will.”
The odds were against Tiger Express almost the moment it started rolling this summer.
Sure, no city these days is worth much without a few cool food trucks, but Jefferson (pop. 4,169) is hardly Portland or Denver.
Even Des Moines has shown to be a hit-or-miss market for food trucks, with many deciding this summer to give it one last shot at business parks in the suburbs.
The guy who sold Murphy the bus had his doubts that small-town rural Iowa was ready for lumpia and Filipino barbecue slathered in homemade “yum yum sauce” — all prepared inside a bright orange bus with black tiger stripes by two people whose bodies are covered in an impressive amount of ink and by Murphy’s 18-year-old son, a budding EDM DJ.
“I’m a believer,” said William Griffin, of Rippey, whose bus Murphy bought.
Local massage therapist Danielle Ross saw the Tiger Express at Bell Tower Festival, where it debuted in June, and has been following it on Facebook ever since.
“I’ve tried everything. I love it all,” Ross said one day last week as she waited for her lunch outside Tri-County Lumber, where the bus was parked. “I’m usually here twice a week, if not three times.”
Murphy and Griffin, who’ve developed a relationship ever since their first Marilyn Manson concert together, are forging new ground as Greene County’s pioneering food truck.
“I know a lot of people are talking about us,” said Scott Broadbent, Murphy’s son.
Hey, it’s Greene County — somebody’s always talking about somebody else, but in this case, a short bus painted pumpkin-orange full of exotic food stands out like a visiting spacecraft.
Fortunately, they come in peace.
“I’m really surprised older people come to my truck,” Murphy, 43, confessed. “They’re loyal, man. They come back every week.”
The lumpia alone, drizzled with Murphy’s homemade sweet chili sauce, will begin invading your every thought.
Lumpia is a kind of spring roll from the Philippines, and Murphy’s lumpia is the old family recipe.
“We always said, ‘Man, this would make a killing in a restaurant,’ ” Broadbent said.
They’ve since been rebranded “Tiger Rolls,” and they complement the “Tiger Bowl,” which is essentially Filipino barbecue with a choice of chicken or pork and jasmine rice.
A third menu item rotates monthly.
A woman of Filipino-Italian descent, Murphy knows her way around a kitchen — or in this case, a cramped food truck.
“We work in tight spots,” she said. “Lots of bumpin’ into each other.”
And then there’s the Thai rolled ice cream.
“All my idea,” Broadbent beamed.
Unfortunately, the instruction manual that arrived with the iced grill in February was printed exclusively in the Thai alphabet.
“It was a little trial and error,” Griffin, 43, said.
But they now can boast the only rolled ice cream in Greene County. A place in Ankeny that sells rolled ice cream regularly has a line out the door, Murphy said.
The rolling restaurant represents two years’ worth of work.
They converted the bus themselves into a food truck and painted it as well. Murphy took out a loan to obtain the equipment.
“It’s truly a family operation from the ground up,” Griffin said.
On this day, Murphy’s 9-year-old son, Sean, was along for the ride, like seeing the Partridge Family reimagined for the Warped Tour generation.
For Murphy, the food truck was a leap of faith after a series of office and waitressing jobs around town.
“She said she was sick of making money for other people,” Griffin said.
“At least I don’t have someone else telling me what to do,” Murphy clarified.
This is what she always wanted, but it tragically came at a price.
Her husband, Jamie Murphy, succumbed in 2015 to a faulty heart valve no one knew existed.
He was only 41.
“We had a very good, happy life,” Nicole Murphy said.
Before Jamie died, owning a food truck was something she could only dream about.
“Wait until next year,” she remembers him saying.
It was Jamie who convinced Nicole and her kids to leave their native Las Vegas for Jefferson in 2007, selling it as a great place to raise a family despite the train horns.
“We probably couldn’t sleep for the first two months,” she said. “We were used to helicopters and police sirens.”
In Jefferson, Nicole Murphy found she had more time to spend in the kitchen, which led to the creation of a particularly fateful mulberry pie.
Someone at a potluck sampled her pie — with its homemade butter crust — and encouraged her to get in contact with Deal’s Orchard. Murphy has been turning out apple crumb pies for Deal’s ever since, baking as many as 100 to 150 a week at peak times.
“Without Deal’s Orchard,” she said, “I wouldn’t be doing this.”
But it was the sudden loss of Jamie, the floor manager at Tri-County Lumber at the time of his death, that propelled her to hit the road with Tiger Express, so named because she, her late husband, her daughter and now Griffin are all tigers in the Chinese zodiac.
“I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to do it,” she said, “unless I knew that your life could end the next day.”
She went from wearing business suits back when she sold airtime on the local radio station to wearing no makeup at all.
“I don’t wear makeup because I sweat,” she said.
As Griffin explained, “That’s probably the number one thing people underestimate about having a food truck — how hot it is.”
“We pray for a breeze,” Murphy added.
The food truck represents a fresh start for both of them.
“I’ve had a little bit of a checkered past,” Griffin said. “You know how it is.
“We’re on track now.”
The two met at a local attorney’s office: She was working for the attorney and he needed the attorney’s services.
“She’s been instrumental in helping me stay on the right path,” Griffin said.
Tiger Express is their little slice of the American dream, but like food trucks in other cities, it hasn’t been without a fight.
A report issued in March by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation on the rapidly emerging, $2.7 billion food truck industry warned that municipal regulations could put the brakes on the phenomenon.
“Food trucks continue to be vehicles for entrepreneurial opportunity and economic growth,” the report stated. “Government regulations, though, have been slow to adapt their rules to this new breed of entrepreneur.”
The trend originated in 2008 when Kogi Korean BBQ debuted on the streets of Los Angeles hawking “Korean tacos.”
The age of hip, gourmet street food had arrived.
Even Taco John’s added “street tacos,” adorned with garlic lime sauce and crumbled cheese, to its menu.
Thanks to their relatively low startup costs, aspiring entrepreneurs hit the streets in seeming droves, remixing food dishes and advertising their whereabouts on social media.
In Chicago, 80 percent of food trucks are minority-owned small businesses, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
But in one city after another, food trucks have been squeezed by fees and strict parking rules.
In downtown Des Moines, mobile vendors pay $1,750 in fees to park in just a handful of spots, the Des Moines Register reported in April.
City Hall in Jefferson is even less accommodating.
“It does not happen on public property no matter what,” City Clerk Diane Kennedy said.
Murphy acquired a permit from the city of Jefferson — costing $100 for a year — but drew the city’s ire after the second or third time she parked Tiger Express on the Square for lunch.
Murphy said she previously was told she could park on the street.
Kennedy insists that isn’t so.
“It was obvious she was very new to this,” Kennedy said. “We tried to be as darn helpful as we could.”
Except for special events, mobile vendors must be on private property “with the property owner’s permission,” Kennedy said.
“That applies to everyone and every business,” she said. “Maybe someone wants to pull a used car lot in front of your place.”
Cities may even be inherently biased against food trucks — as the Des Moines Register noted in April, brick-and-mortar restaurants pay property taxes.
Kennedy verified that City Hall in Jefferson received complaints about Tiger Express doing business on a downtown street.
“We received calls here,” she said.
Undeterred, Tiger Express is rolling right along.
“To be honest,” Murphy said, “we probably don’t make a lot of money, but we make a lot of people happy.”