Small Business Spotlight: Hungry Hippo EatsJohny Walker loves to cook and meet new people. He combined those passions in October 2020 when he started the Hungry Hippo Eats food truck to serve Haitian barbecue with a Southern flair. Walker and his wife, Kerri, both cook the food. Photo submitted by Kerri Walker.
Tucker, GA — One Tucker resident has dreamed of opening a food truck and the pandemic proved to be a good time to do so. With his new-found free time, Johny Walker decided to follow his passion for cooking and open Hungry Hippo Eats in October 2020.
But Walker’s wife, Kerri, didn’t know this dream was coming to fruition until the food truck pulled up in their driveway. Her initial reaction was shock and awe.
“But this overwhelming excitement also hit me because this is the man’s dream and he is completely where he’s supposed to be now,” Kerri said. “Like he’s such a great cook and he’s such a people person that being able to combine those two in one career is a dream come true for him.”
Walker’s mother owned a restaurant and taught him to cook at a very young age.
“Cooking is in my blood,” he said.
He has always enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen, beginning with family recipes and adding his own spin.
About 10 years ago, Walker entered a cooking competition in the backyard category and won for his Haitian jerk chicken wings.
“The competition, the Gainesville Chicken Festival became an annual tradition and the more awards I received, the more I knew this was my path,” Walker said. “I started dreaming of a food truck. I love people and I love food, the food truck allows me to serve both.”
Walker and Kerri describe the food as Haitian jerk barbecue with a Southern flair. Walker is Haitian and Dominican and Kerri was born and raised in Georgia. The pair both contribute recipes and cook the food.
Their No. 1 seller is the Haitian jerk plate which is four jerk wings served with Haitian black rice and slaw.
“How I describe the jerk is that it’s very similar to Jamaican jerk except it doesn’t leave you with that feeling that your face has just been burned off,” Kerri said. “Like it doesn’t have that level of heat that the Jamaican style does.”
Their second bestseller is the BBQ mac which is smoked pulled pork that is put on top of Southern mac and cheese, which is Kerri’s recipe, and covered in barbecue sauce.
“The other specialty is that we use a lot of Haitian pikliz,” Kerris said. “It is a homemade pepper, cabbage, carrot blend. It’s seasoned for 45 days and it just adds this little kick to everything we do.”
The COVID-19 pandemic ended up being the perfect time for Walker to start a new venture. By trade, he is a contracted insurance adjuster which required him to travel for months at a time. But he didn’t feel comfortable traveling during the pandemic, so he didn’t renew his contract, Kerri said.
She said it’s crazy that they started during COVID-19 but it gave them time to learn and grow.
“It’s been a huge learning curve – much harder than I anticipated,” Walker said. “We knew there would be additional obstacles due to the pandemic, but it has really given us some extra grace to get things right. I think the slower ramp up has really helped us perfect our processes.”
The slower ramp up, however, hasn’t gone without challenges.
Early on Kerri and Walker took their food truck to an event in Athens on a rainy day and didn’t see many customers. On the drive home one of their Big Green Egg grills tipped over and “we had flames shooting out the back of our truck,” Kerri said.
“It was a hot mess. We were all dripping wet and scared to death because this huge fire was going on. I say huge, but it was all contained in the egg,” she added.
The grill wasn’t installed in the truck correctly and the couple didn’t double-check it. They learned that no one will take care of their truck like they do, and it’s important to get things right, Kerri said, adding that the food truck has been so much fun overall.
Hungry Hippo Eats can be found at various locations about three to four times per week. Some of their favorite places are the Tanger Outlets in Commerce, Dr. Scofflaw’s at The Works and neighborhood events, especially in Tucker.
“Actually getting out and meeting more of our neighbors, especially with the pandemic where you haven’t seen people for so long, it’s nice because it gives neighbors an opportunity to be outside and socially distance but still see people they wouldn’t see on a normal basis now,” Kerri said.
Inside the food truck, everyone working wears masks and frequently wash hands, which is vital to any food service with or without a pandemic, Walker said. They also wear gloves and encourage customers to pre-order so pick up is quick and social distancing is followed, he added.
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