The Garden State loves its food trucks, but the biggest New Jersey food truck success story of 2022 is 3,000 miles away in California.
Six episodes into Season 15 of the Food Network’s “Great Food Truck Race,” three young entrepreneurs from ESO Artisanal Pasta in Morristown are among the final three teams hungry to claim the $50,000 grand prize going into Sunday’s penultimate episode.
“At this point, we found new life,” said Matt McFadden, who teams with his lifelong friend, AJ Sankofa, and Sankofa’s fiancée Kristin Gambarian on the ESO truck. “There was a little 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 we were trending toward the top.”
ESO is vying for the final prize against Maybe Cheese Born With It, a mac-and-cheese focused team from Toledo, Ohio, helmed by drag queen Sugar Vermonte, and SENOREATA, a Cuban cuisine catering company from Los Angeles. The second-to-last episode of “The Great Food Truck Race” will air on Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Food Network.
McFadden joined the company in January and “by late February I’m on a plane to California,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “Great Food Truck Race” producers learned about ESO’s story and invited the Morris restaurateurs to compete, even though the young makers and retailers of fresh, high-end pasta had never operated a food truck.
Sankofa founded ESO in 2020, but COVID and a legal battle with his former partners temporarily shuttered the young business 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 launched its comeback last year.
The season began with nine teams who were given custom trucks and various destinations to serve. Along the way, teams could earn money and bonus benefits by winning various challenges, ranging from specific menu items to a sandboard race on the Glamis Dunes, the largest natural dune park in the United States.
“We came in last,” McFadden said, laughing. “AJ and I, we’ve all been snowboarding and other things, but not in the sand.”
Each episode ended with the elimination of one team.
He was careful not to give up any spoilers of what’s to come, but McFadden said the ESO team struggled early due to the prep time involved in making fresh pasta every day.
“For us, it was logistics,” he said. “Our food has been a hit the entire time. We had to figure out how to open faster.”
Sales picked up after they made a decision in Episode 5 to outsource their fresh pasta to focus more on sales.
“We had other dishes,” he said. “Our Sicilian fried chicken was the biggest hit we had out there. It sold from the beginning.
“Some were good at selling,” Gambarian said of the competition. “We are good at cooking. There was a lot of burgers, sausage, Chinese food, tacos. We were the ones who were cooking restaurant-level food.”
The team survived a few close calls before finishing second in Episode 5, thanks to winning appetizer and dessert challenges selected by guest judges.
“We’ve done well in sales and other areas, but the challenges have played a big role for us,” said McFadden, who honed his cooking skills working at Whole Foods in Morristown.
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McFadden described the entire experience as “amazing” on and off the set and with the other teams, some of whom played to the cameras with colorful fashions, bold pronouncements and competitive drama.
“Off-set we were friendly with a lot of the teams, and sad to see them go when they got cut,” McFadden said. “Even though there are little rivalries brewing, for the most part, everyone is tightknit off-set.”
On-set and on-camera was another matter.
“For the most part, when most people see us on the show, we really just stick to ourselves,” McFadden said. “We try to figure out what we can do to improve. We don’t try to mingle with other teams while the competition is going on. We try to outdo ourselves every time.”
Regardless of the outcome, the national exposure is already helping them outdo previous sales records for ESO, which sells its products from a small storefront on Elm Street, but also has had success with pop-up locations at Morristown restaurants such as South + Pine.
A food truck may or may not be part of their future, but for now, they are busy prepping orders for national delivery.
“We’ve got a lot of demand right now,” McFadden said. “There’s a lot of demand from customers who are out of state. We’re still mapping it out but we’ll probably will start shipping at the conclusion of the show.”
Visit the ESO Artisanal Pasta website for information and updates.