By Cheryl Hall
The Dallas Morning News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) All told, “Ruthie’s” did more than a million bucks in sales last year. What started out as a whim in 2011 has grown into big business for Dallas food truck entrepreneur Ashlee Kleinert.
The Dallas Morning News
Ashlee Kleinert, daughter of Dallas billionaire Ray Hunt and granddaughter of the legendary oilman H.L., may well be the world’s most unlikely owner of a food truck fleet.
But her Ruthie’s Rolling Cafe’s gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches — inspired by those made by her grandmother, Ruth Ray Hunt — are among the most popular meals on wheels in North Texas.
Kleinert helped mobilize the food truck business here when she set Ruthie’s in motion somewhat on a whim in 2011.
Six years later, Ruthie’s three trucks are regulars at Klyde Warren Park, the campus of Southern Methodist University and Reunion Tower. They feed folks in valet lines and have become hip catering options for school events, weddings and graduation parties.
All told, Ruthie’s did more than a million bucks in sales last year.
Hoping to even out a seasonal business, Kleinert recently sold her first franchise to a former Dallasite who’s bringing Ruthie’s to New Jersey. And she’s looking for a small brick-and-mortar restaurant location near SMU.
Things are definitely on a roll.
But Ruthie’s is more than a means for making money. Kleinert uses it as a means for supporting local nonprofits with what she calls, “Ruthie’s Snacks of Kindness.”
Over the holidays, Kleinert sent trucks to nine of her employees’ favorite nonprofits and treated their staffs with free cheesy concoctions such as “The Boss” (barbecue brisket and cheddar), “Turkey Trot” (turkey, bacon, cheddar with secret “slob sauce”) and, of course, “Plain Jane” (American cheese) — all slathered with butter on sourdough.
She could tell you the calorie counts, but you really don’t want to know.
“It’s not exactly on the Whole30 plan or Atkins,” she says over an oatmeal breakfast.
Sustaining her employees
These surprise pop-ups of comfort food are a way to keep her employees busy when the weather isn’t cooperating and eating outdoors isn’t that pleasant.
She believes in paying a sustainable living wage of at least $13 an hour year-round so that employees don’t have to work a second job.
“We’re paying our staff so they get the hours. And they get to bring the business to the organization that they want,” Kleinert says. “Even if the weather’s not good, we can still cook in the truck and run the food in.”
There’s other simple acts of kindness. Ruthie’s raised $800 by giving a portion of its meal-deal sales, along with customer donations in a jar at Klyde Warren Park, to help DFW Wreaths for Heroes purchase holiday wreaths for the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery on Christmas Day.
It’s more than enough to make Ashlee’s parents proud.
“We are ever grateful that Ruthie’s revenue has been selflessly directed toward broad community outreach projects and charitable entities,” says Ashlee’s mom, Nancy Ann Hunt. “Ruthie’s is ever more than a successful business. It is a vehicle of ministry.”
In case you’re wondering, Ruthie’s is just one of the ways she and her husband, Chris Kleinert, co-CEO of Hunt Consolidated Inc., give back to the city.
“Ashlee’s one of the best examples of a ‘do-well-and-do-good’ business owner and community leader,” says Roslyn Dawson Thompson, CEO of the Dallas Women’s Foundation. “Her success has benefited so many nonprofits throughout Dallas, including, I’m grateful to say, ours.”
Ashlee’s parents were mystified by the concept when she dropped it on them in 2011.
The food truck phenomenon hadn’t quite found its way here from the East and West coasts, and they couldn’t grasp why anyone would wait in line in the elements to order food, wait again to get it, and then search for a place to eat it.
“They tried to be very enthusiastic and happy for us,” Ashlee recalls, “But they didn’t get it.”
Frankly, neither did she.
In 2010, Kleinert and two friends had a business, In Any Event, that helped nonprofits with fundraisers. She went to a national event planning convention where the keynoter talked about the hottest new thing for the upcoming year — food trucks.
“He said, ‘It’s great for pre-party, post-party, valet lines — have a little doughnut truck when people are waiting in line to get their cars,” Kleinert recalls. “My team and I were like, ‘How much fun that would be?’ I thought, ‘I’ll just buy a truck and book it,’ having no idea what in the world that I was doing.”
She’d never taken a business course, doesn’t enjoy cooking, hadn’t driven a commercial vehicle or worked in a restaurant of any kind, much less one on wheels with a tiny kitchen.
“Because we didn’t have food trucks here, Chris and I wanted a concept that everyone could relate to, and it couldn’t be anything that people would be afraid of like sushi.”
Ashlee thought about cherished memories of late-night grilled cheese sandwiches when she spent the night with “Granny Ruth” at Mt. Vernon — the White Rock Lake replica of the one on the Potomac. “We’d stay up super late and talk,” Ashlee recalls. “She wasn’t necessarily a great cook, either. The recipe was Texas toast drenched in butter on the frying pan with tons of cheese.
“She’s probably laughing in heaven about this.”
“A really stupid idea”
Ashlee found a used white food truck in Ohio on the internet, bought it for about 45 grand and decided to learn how to drive it during Richardson’s evening traffic.
She filled it up — unfortunately with diesel instead of unleaded — only to stall out at the intersection of Coit and Campbell roads.
“The police had to come and put cones around me in rush hour,” she says with a laugh. “Thankfully, we hadn’t had the Ruthie’s wrap put on it yet. At that moment, I realized doing a food truck was a really stupid idea.”
The first big event was an August food truck rally in the Sigel’s parking lot on Greenville Avenue.
It was so hot, shoes were melting in the asphalt.
“We didn’t know how to do ordering. The lines got so long, people were waiting over an hour,” she says. A wind gust blew away the ticket orders. “It was chaos, and it was terrible. Ambulances were coming because people were fainting from the heat. It was as bad as it could get.”
Her son, Tyler Kleinert, a freshman at SMU at the time, had pushed for the food truck and was on hand for its hotter-than-hell debacle.
“I thought I’d never see the truck again after that day,” says Tyler, who now oversees operations and marketing. “It’s been really cool to see my mom and the team grow the business and carry on the legacy of my great-grandmother.
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Having a part in some of the recent growth has been an even cooler experience.”
After that shaky start, things got better.
In 2012, Klyde Warren Park put Ruthie’s on the map.
Savor, the park’s restaurant, wasn’t going to be finished in time for the opening so the Woodall Rodgers Foundation, which runs the park for the city, decided to bring in a small fleet of food trucks. It was supposed to be a first-year temporary dining solution.
The foundation secretly scoped out Ruthie’s along with the dozen or so existing trucks and found that the grilled-cheese maker could pass the park’s rigorous muster, says Tara Green, the foundation’s CEO.
“Our trucks have to be able to do 200 meals between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. without restocking. We don’t want them to run out of food when we have a full park,” she says.
More than 60 food trucks are on the park’s waitlist, Green says, but they won’t be usurping Ruthie’s spot anytime soon.
Obviously, the temporary fix turned into a mainstay draw and Ruthie’s is a big reason why, Green says. “We want this to be a place where memories are made, where you can come and relax and take a deep breath in the middle of a green space in downtown Dallas. Pairing that with a grilled cheese and little side of tomato soup is perfect — especially on a day like today when it’s cold outside.”
In 2013, Kleinert added a second truck and phased out In Any Event. She bought a third truck in 2015. Truck No. 4 was one too many for the very seasonal business and was sold to real estate developer Hillwood for one of its planned community developments.
Tyler and his company, TriTex, changed the strategy from food truck festivals to private events, where there are fewer vagaries of weather, headcount and order preferences. Last year, Ruthie’s catered nearly 150 school and athletic events, 26 graduation parties and 24 weddings.
Surprisingly, August has become a good month with back-to-school events.
It can still be nerve wracking — like when one of the trucks had a flat on the way to a wedding two years ago.
“You can’t just call a tow truck or AAA,” she says. “Our devoted staff raced back and forth from where we broke down to the wedding. But the couple had really wanted the truck as the facade, so we gave them another free event.”
He did it for the cheese
Ruthie’s is testing the idea of franchises with a former Highland Parker turned New Jerseyite, Whitney Pillsbury, who was ready to semi-retire from his successful advertising business at 48 but wanted to do something fun, creative and cause-related.
He’s been a fan of Ruthie’s when he’s in town since its inception.
They cooked up a deal where Ruthie’s would give him all the hard-learned lessons — truck layout, point-of-sale system, inventory stocking tips and employee manual — and he’d refresh the Ruthie’s truck graphics, branding and logo and organize its social media.
“After working in marketing for 25 years, I know a great brand when I see it,” says Pillsbury. “Ruthie’s has all the right stuff: uniqueness, consistency, philanthropy and fun. Oh, and cheese, there is a lot of cheese. I guess, I did it for the cheese.”
But he was particularly drawn to the do-gooder side of grilled cheese.
“Our very first catering event in New Jersey was a fundraiser for hurricane victims at our YMCA. We really want to be known as the ‘food truck with a purpose,’ ” says Pillsbury, whose favorite sandwich is the Plain Jane. “I add mayo and pickles, and it takes me back to the Highland Pharmacy days 35 years ago.”
Title: Owner, Ruthie’s Rolling Cafe LLC
Grew up: Far North Dallas
Resides: Far North Dallas
Education: Richardson High School, 1984, bachelor of arts degree in history with certification in elementary education, Southern Methodist University, 1988.
Personal: Married to Chris Kleinert, co-CEO of Hunt Consolidated Inc., for 29 years. They have a daughter, 27, and two sons, 26, and 24.
Ruthie’s Rolling Cafe LLC
Ownership: Ashlee Kleinert
No. of trucks: 3
Employees: 18 permanent, 22 in fall and spring
Revenue: $1 million-plus, up 13 percent in 2017
Top sales months: October, May and April
Worst months: January, February and July