The Garden State loves its food trucks, but New Jersey’s biggest food truck success story of 2022 lies 3,000 miles away in California.
Six Episodes In the 15th season of Food Network’s “Great Food Truck Race,” three young entrepreneurs from Morristown ESO Artisanal Pasta were among the last three teams hungry to win the $50,000 jackpot that will go to the penultimate episode. Sunday.
“At this point, we’ve found a new life,” said Matt McFadden, who collaborates with lifelong friend AJ Sankofa and Sankofa fiancé Kristin Gambarian on an ESO truck. “There was a bit of exhaustion in the middle [of the season] Because we were trying to figure out how to get over the hump. But once we finally started hitting our groove, it was exciting. We felt like we were heading towards the top.”
ESO competes for the ultimate prize against Maybe Cheese Born With It, a mac and cheese-focused team from Toledo, Ohio, led by drag queen Sugar Vermonte, and SENOREATA, a Cuban catering company from Los Angeles. The second to final episode of “The Great Food Truck Race” will air Sundays at 9 p.m. on the Food Network.
McFadden joined the company in January, and “by late February, I was on a flight to California,” he said in an interview earlier this year. The producers of the “Great Food Truck Race” learned about ESO’s story and invited Morris’ restaurants to compete, even though small makers and retailers of fresh, upscale pasta had never run a food truck.
Sankofa founded ESO in 2020, but COVID and a legal battle with his former partners led to the young business being temporarily closed less than a year later. A GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $20,000 and a $10,000 Black-owned small business grant from the New York Jets Foundation in February made its comeback last year.
The season began with nine teams who were given dedicated trucks and different destinations to serve. Along the way, teams can earn cash and bonus rewards by winning various challenges, from specific menu items to a race on the sand at Glamis Dunes, the largest natural dune park in the United States.
“We’re finally here,” McFadden said with a laugh. “AJ and I, we were all snowboarding and other things, but not in the sand.”
Each episode ended with one team being eliminated.
He was careful not to give away any spoilers for what was to come, but McFadden said the ESO team struggled early on due to the prep time involved in making fresh pasta each day.
“For us, it was logistical,” he said. “Our food has been a hit all along. We had to figure out how to open it faster.”
Sales rebounded after they made the decision in Episode 5 to outsource their fresh pasta to focus more on sales.
“We have other dishes,” he said. “Our Sicilian fried chicken was the biggest hit we got there. It was sold out from the start.
“Some were really good at selling,” Gambrian said of the competition. “We’re good at cooking. There were a lot of burgers, sausage, Chinese food, tacos. We were the ones cooking the food at the restaurant level.”
The team survived a few close calls before finishing second in Episode 5, thanks to winning starter and dessert challenges chosen by the guest judges.
“We’ve done really well in sales and in other areas, but the challenges played a big part for us,” said McFadden, who has honed his culinary skills by working at Whole Foods in Morristown.
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McFadden described the whole experience as “amazing” both on and off site and with the other teams, some of whom played in front of the cameras in colorful costumes, bold statements and competitive drama.
“We’ve been friendly with a lot of the teams, and it’s sad to see them go when they get cut,” MacFadden said. “Although there is a bit of competition brewing, everyone is mostly incoherent.”
Being on camera and on camera was another matter.
“For the most part, when most people see us on the show, we really stick to ourselves,” McFadden said. “We’re trying to see what we can do to improve. We don’t try to mingle with other teams while the competition continues. We try to outdo ourselves every time.”
Regardless of the outcome, the national exposure is already helping them outpace previous sales records for ESO, which sells from a small storefront on Elm Street but has also had success in pop-up locations in Morristown restaurants like South + Pine.
The food truck may or may not be a part of their future, but for now, they’re busy preparing orders for local delivery.
“We have a lot of demand right now,” McFadden said. “There’s a lot of demand from customers who are out of state. We’re still drawing it but we’ll probably start shipping at the close of the show.”
Visit the ESO Artisanal Pasta website for information and updates.