This is the third of four stories featuring food trucks from Labette County that are serving Parsons and area communities. Food truck fare has grown in popularity in recent years.
From the time he was 8 until he was 21 and became a police officer, J.R. Keene worked at the Parsons Sirloin Stockade that his mother, Maggie Keene, managed.
Restaurant work was not his career path of choice, although he loved to cook. That passion was shared with fellow officer Adan Nance, who about six years ago planted a seed in Keene’s mind of working a food truck.
“He actually bought a food trailer then, and then we both had children. His daughter was born in August and mine in September. When I had my first child it was, ‘I don’t have time to do anything now. I’ll never get anything done,’” Keene said. “The (food truck) went by the wayside. It was an idea I had always kind of had off and on, but I didn’t really know how to accomplish it or how well it would be received in a town the size of Parsons.”
He continued on but found he was not fulfilled working for Parsons Police Department, which faced continued short staffing issues, and finding it to be a mentally draining job.
“I have so much respect for the guys still doing it,” he said.
He started to work for Old Dominion Freight Line in 2019. He still occasionally thought about the food truck, though he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Then inspiration pushed through the door.
“It always seemed on Valentine’s Day, between me and my wife, the same picture always got passed around. It was a heart-shaped platter full of tacos. I wanted to do something special for her, so I made one. The first one was Valentine’s Day of 2019. I posted pictures, and I had numerous people call me or text me after that and say, ‘Hey, if you do this again next year I want you to let me know,’” he said. “Fast forward to 2021. We did it again, but made 25 of them.”
Each platter held 40 tacos, so he and his wife received help from his mother, father and sister. They made just shy of 1,000 tacos in two days.
“It seemed after that it was very well received, and I felt like if I could make a living doing what I wanted to do, why not give it a shot,” he said. “I honestly could have done 100 of them if I had a place to do it; 4,000 tacos would be a lot.
“We kind of decided that was going to be our defining moment. If people were going to buy it and it was going over well then that’s what I want. When it did, that’s when I decided it would be good to have my own kitchen outside of my home. It’s hard to get your own kitchen certified in your home,” Keene said.
A few months later he bought an unequipped food truck that had been sitting unused for a couple of years and he equipped it. The truck broke down on the way to Parsons. A few months after that, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Old Dominion was laying off workers. While he retained his position, he wasn’t sure where his family would be financially as the pandemic played out, so he didn’t make improvements to the truck.
In late January, virus rates were improving. He found he wasn’t happy working for Old Dominion. Despite good pay and benefits, he said, “It’s not at all what I wanted to do. I talked to my wife a little more about it and she said, ‘Well, just try to do some caterings here and there and we’ll see where it goes. I started doing that the beginning of July. I had two the first week, and two more the second week, and two more again. I did Dayton Superior, 70 meals for them, the Labette Health Foundation and LCC when they gave their scholarship awards. I had the fair board the week before that,” he said. “We talked about it a little bit more and decided to sell the truck and buy a trailer that was ready to go, and here we are.”
Commercial Bank was a big help in helping him purchase the trailer, since he didn’t have the cash to buy it. He said the bank has always been super supportive of smaller businesses, and they put him on the right track to succeed with that.
“It’s a big thanks to them for helping me get his far,” he said.
With a food truck or food trailer, Keene said you will pay anywhere from $20,000 on up to $100,000, depending on what you want to buy. They are not cheap. The equipment is not cheap.
“But my mom ran Sirloin Stockade here in town and managed it. The water bill was $2,000 a month. The gas bill was $2,000 a month. The electric bill was $2,000 a month. Property taxes were $10,000 a year. A few months of running that place would pay for the trailer I just bought, basically,” he said.
The food truck scene was building in the area and seemed to result from restaurants closing or offering curbside pickups, and 2020 seemed to bring them success. During that time and the start of this year, Keene said he has eaten food from Costa’s Cuisine and found it to be excellent, and the same with Blade & Co., and he mentioned good food from The Blue Spoon and Colborn’s Kitchen food trucks, which have both visit Parsons. With so much quality food coming out of food trucks, he knew expectations would be high. He decided for his own menu to stay true to what started it all: tacos.
Keene said it is crazy how fast things came together.
He did a soft launch for friends and family Aug. 15, making sure things would flow as he hoped. His wife and mom were there to help.
Things went well and five days later he held his grand opening for Outsider Tacos at the Gathering Place pocket park, where Food Truck Fridays were a welcomed event through Aug. 27. He sold out, having made more than 1,200 tacos. The next week he was in Altamont. He planned to sell from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. In 3.5 hours, they had sold “600ish” tacos, selling out by 3:30.
“It’s been pretty wild. It’s blown my mind it’s been so well received in a town as small as this,” Keene said. “Parsons kind of gets a bad rep for not supporting local business or not having local business to support, but it seems I can’t go somewhere without people asking about it, ‘When are you going to be ready?’ That’s been a blessing for me. I’m that kind of guy who needs a little bit of reassurance when it comes to that kind of stuff.”
Keene said John Smith, who runs Dr. John’s BBQ at Parsons Livestock Market, contacted him in January about maybe one Saturday a month getting different food trucks in since the parking lot is so big there. The city of Altamont called and is wanting to do something on Mondays throughout the fall. Chetopa has been doing something similar.
“There are a lot of places that are starting to do this. … I think it is big attraction for businesses. I’ve had some friends who own a business, a body shop in Independence, and they asked me to come over there. I have a business in Coffeyville that wants me to come there. It’s becoming pretty popular. It’s definitely a new scene. When you have something like that in your parking lot, it catches people’s attention a little more. There’s quite a few places well within driving distance that are doing it,” he said. “Forever, food trucks were just what you could get at a carnival or fair. They were all serving the same food and it wasn’t anything extravagant. There’s food trucks out there now that are turning out five star quality food.
“And I think we are pretty lucky to live in the area we do,” he said. “If you are going to start a small business, you are going to have all the support in the world right here. That’s kind of hard to beat.”
Specialty steak, pork and chicken street tacos are on his menu.
“I don’t know what it is about Mexican food. I think it’s kind of comfort food for us. My family … when we meet up that is what we eat. That’s kind of what I want to happen with this. I want it to become comfort food. Having a great day, come see me and get some tacos, and we’ll make it a better day. If your day’s terrible, come see me and I can make it better. I think our culture is very centered around food. When you meet up with people where do you usually meet? For lunch or dinner. That’s always a common thing for us. I think it kind of eases the tension.”
Keene said he is excited, and he loves the change of pace. He’s worked nights and weekends or odd schedules for the majority of his marriage, and he and his wife have been married for 11 years. His children are super happy to have him home at night. He knows it won’t be every evening he is home and that he will have to work some. But if the food truck allows him to spend a little more time at home and do what he wants for a living, it’s worth the risk, he said. There is the added benefit of not having to clock in and not having to be at the same place every day. He has no office and no set times or dates for a work schedule, with the exception of those he schedules.
“I will be working for myself and be able to see the benefits first hand. I think that was the appeal for me,” he said.
Another benefit is seeing looks of satisfaction on customers’ faces, and hearing from them how great the food is.
“I kind of need that instant gratification. I’m willing to wait a little bit, but with cooking you get that. When I can take food to a catering and everyone goes through the line and its completely silent afterward, no one is talking, they are just eating, that’s a proud moment for you, you know. You must have done a good job, because there is no food left,” he said. “I know people like it. I really haven’t advertised much. Most of my business has come from my customers and word of mouth.”
He has great hope for the future of Outsider Tacos.
“It’s an exciting time and a scary time,” he said. “When you have a wife and three kids at home and one more on the way it’s, ‘I have to make this work no matter what.’”