The next time you peruse the food trucks lined up in Civic Center Park on a Tuesday, you might notice a something a little different: quinoa. A food truck named Keenwah, CO is now roaming metro Denver, serving up dishes inspired by the seed (not an actual grain) long-loved by foodies and healthy eaters alike. And with a menu inspired by global cuisine and big flavors, even the health-food averse (or oblivious) will find something to enjoy.
Keenwah, CO comes from the mind of Elizabeth McDermott, a practicing lawyer now juggling her nascent business with her legal position in Colorado Springs -- talk about multi-tasking. After college in upstate New York and a magazine job in the city, McDermott decided to return to her native state to earn a law degree from the University of Denver. During law school, she quickly realized that she had an entrepreneurial streak that couldn't be appeased just by working for a big firm. Enter quinoa.
McDermott says she ultimately narrowed down her ideas for a new business after noticing a lack of variety in delicious and healthy food at Colorado's quick service restaurants, along with a push from her vegetarian fiancé, that led her to the world of food service. Despite protestations from friends and family that she was crazy for entering such a high-risk industry, McDermott bought an old Hostess delivery van (still full of Twinkies, she says) in November last year. She wasted no time in getting off the ground: the truck was fully outfitted in June on a Friday, and Keenwah, CO was serving food the next Tuesday.
This kind of speed is indicative of McDermott's passion not only for her own business and healthy eating, but also a desire to educate and attract new customers to the quinoa calling. "My parent's couldn't pronounce quinoa for the first six months," McDermott says. "So that was kind of the tip off that we needed to help people."
Step one in approachability: the phonetic name, a handy pronunciation guide for the quinoa uninitiated (although McDermott says she still gets a few head-scratching customers). The second step, McDermott says, was creating a menu that appealed to a wide range of people, from those health-foodies who already know and love quinoa to others who still might need some coaxing. For that, McDermott brought in managing chef Sheila Sackett, who came from a background in natural and holistic cooking. They worked together to make their dishes desirable to a wide range of palates, including those who may have had a previous traumatic quinoa encounter.
McDermott says that she and Sackett often field questions like, "how do I make my quinoa not taste like punishment?" It's those kinds of people she's hoping to bring into quinoa's corner. She understands that quinoa in the wrong hands can be bland or improperly cooked, so her menu offers flavors from around the world designed to attract a similarly wide swath of customers. Her offerings, served as a wrap or a salad, range from an Italian-inspired pesto with roasted tomatoes and mozzarella, to McDermott's personal favorite: the Thai, which includes sweet potatoes, zucchini and coconut green curry sauce. For flavors a little closer to home, she created the Colorado, packed with black beans, roasted hatch green chilies and a mango and chili salsa. McDermott says it's all about marketing an unfamiliar dish through familiar and comforting flavor combinations. That's also why she also offers chicken or steak add-ons for carnivorous clients who may doubt the seed's protein-packed power (tofu is also coming soon).
McDermott's love of experimentation keeps her dreaming up new ways to use and modify quinoa into something less intimidating: Take for example her almond-butter quinoa blondies or side dishes like quinoa "tater" tots and quinoa-breaded buffalo chicken bites, designed with beer drinkers in mind. With stops at local breweries planned in the coming months, McDermott understands that not everyone wants a salad with beer.
The menu is all part of the dynamic, go-getter attitude that got Keenwah, CO off the ground in less than a year. It's an outlook that is also reflected in McDermott's hopes for the future, including plans for a brick-and-mortar shop she hopes to put into motion this winter. Keenwah, CO will also be partnering with Aspen Juice Company when it opens a stand-alone shop in Cherry Creek, serving quinoa wraps alongside Aspen's cold-pressed juices. Sackett and McDermott agree that the "new-car smell" will wear off eventually; it's all a part of riding out the popularity and novelty of a quinoa food truck, and making sure people keep coming back and learning to love the much-maligned seed. For now, you can find Keenwah, CO at the Cherry Creek Farmer's Market, Civic Center Eats on Tuesday and City Park on Sundays. They are also soon to be hitting the streets, so follow them on their Facebook page or check out their website.
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