This is part of a series introducing the Cheeselandia Council, brought to you by Wisconsin Cheese.
One of the most interesting places to eat in Milwaukee right now is Zocalo Food Park, the city’s first food truck park located inside Walker’s Point. It’s also uniquely positioned during the Covid-19 era to welcome guests while maintaining social distancing.
Zocalo originated with Mazorca Tacos, founded by Jesus Gonzalez. Gonzalez is a formally trained chef (he attended CIA in Hyde Park) whose parents came to the U.S. in the mid-70s from a small farming community in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. And, Gonzalez says, he was brought up in a culture that valued food, as well as the stories it told.
When he opened Mazorca in 2017, it received rave reviews from Milwaukee press: “Their tasty bistec has three tasty going for it – the Wisconsin beer marinade, tender bean topping and delicious corn tortilla.” (Milwaukee Magazine)
We caught up with Jesus to learn more about the past few years building Milwaukee’s first food truck park, fostering food entrepreneurship, and how they’ve continued to innovate during the pandemic.
HRN: To kick things off, we’d love to know about some of your earliest cheese memories.
Jesus Gonzalez: Well, I grew up on the south side of Milwaukee. It's a neighborhood that’s really rich in the Latino culture. Growing up at their church, our parents would treat us by going to Don Pancho's restaurant on Pancho Villa. He sells carnitas (or pork) that has been cooked in its own fat – it's almost like a pork confit. We'd go there and buy a few pounds of meat.
Before we would go inside his little shop, I would always remember there's a man in his van, and he had the back door open to his van. And he would post up there and sell queso fresco – he would make this queso fresco. I'm sure, you know, he probably didn’t have any permits to do this. But he'd do it. He sat there and he'd sell it. He would always wave us down and try to get us to taste it, because he knew that if people tasted his cheese, they would buy a few pounds of it.
It's one of those memories that I have of eating cheese at a very early age and having a relationship with the cheese maker. Every time I see queso fresco, it brings back that memory of a Sunday morning getting carnitas and buying freshly made queso fresco.
HRN: How do both your family recipes and the food culture of Milwaukee influence the menu at Mazorca?
JG: I've always said that Mazorca's menu is my story of growing up as a first generation Mexican-American here in Milwaukee. Being exposed to the flavor profiles that my parents brought with them and combining that with the rich culture that we have here in Milwaukee – I was able to combine those flavors and build the menu around that.
For example, if you take a look at the steak taco, it's thinly, thinly cut sirloin that's been marinated in beer. Milwaukee is the beer capital. You know, we have so many breweries.... Miller is right in our own backyard. So, there's always an abundance of beer. My parents didn't drink much, but they use beer in their cooking. Every summer cookout involved marinating our steak with this beer and it would change the flavor profile in the beef. I wanted to share that in my steak taco. That's just one example of how I take flavors and memories from being in Milwaukee into my menu.
HRN: Why did you decide to serve your food from a food truck instead of a brick and mortar?
JG: After living in New York for a while – after attending school, moving to the city, working there, gain experience, meeting different people – I decided to move back home to Milwaukee, and I knew I wanted to start my business. It was the only way in which I felt I was going to be able to tell my story. I looked at my bank account, and I was really honest with myself. I said, "Jesus, how can I start off and not give myself in debt?"
So, I started doing some research and I found a 1950 trailer. The only issue was it was in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I convinced my brother and my cousins to drive down there and negotiate with this very nice young couple.... and we bought this 1950 trailer. We drove it back, and we began to reconstruct the inside of it. That became the laboratory, the theater, the kitchen. We were able to create our menu and share it with our customers. It was just a really efficient and low-cost way of getting started.
HRN: How has Covid-19 impacted your business(es)? How does your business model as a food park help you navigate the uncertainty around the pandemic?
JG: What Covid-19 really did was to expose the creativity of the entrepreneur. The advantage of being in a trailer, being part of a food truck park, was that we had other food entrepreneurs looking for creative ways of reaching the customer. It helped keep us motivated, because we didn't feel alone. It really allowed us the opportunity to get creative and find ways to still fill the needs of our customers and followers. Being able to conduct contactless transactions was a big help, as was rolling out curbside at the park. We really felt the support of our community through this pandemic.
Was it hard? Absolutely. But what helped us get through it was this knowing and being in a space where we weren't alone.
HRN: It was just announced that a new concept was joining Zocalo Food Park for the next year (Dairyland Old-Fashioned Burgers). Tell us a bit about that concept and the process behind bringing featured vendors into Zocalo.
JG: Part of the beauty of the Zocalo is being able to provide a platform for food entrepreneurs. We're only a year in, and we've been very fortunate to work with some of the best food entrepreneurs in the city. A perfect example of that is that we now have a new food trailer called Dairyland. And their focus is on old fashioned burgers. Hands down – it is the best burger in Milwaukee. And I'm saying that without any biases.
Our goal with Zocalo is having a very diverse food offering. We see that there's a lot of beauty and diversity in being able to share different cuisines from different cultures. So, a big part of our role here is how do we curate the food offerings and vendors within the space.
Another example of that is Modern Maki. Their focus is on sushi and bringing that West Coast style of sushi to Milwaukee. Another example is Flower Girl and Flame, and their focus is on doing pizzas with this wheat that comes from Wisconsin. So, people will never get tired of Zocalo, because we are constantly bringing in new concepts into the space.
HRN: What have been your biggest lessons learned during 2020? What do you think the future of restaurants and food trucks looks like once we make it to the other side of the current crisis?
JG: Number one is the importance of community. The community that we have here within Zocalo really showed that if you rally together, you will survive together. I'm extremely thankful for having that sense of community within the entrepreneurs.
Secondly, out of all this fear and frustration and unknown is – we were able to create innovation. I think that in 2021, what we will see is some of the best food entrepreneurs showcasing what they've learned and what they've created while being in this very high-pressured environment.
I also do think that with restaurant closings, we will see more food entrepreneurs looking for food trucks or food trailers to be able to connect with their customers. We've learned that starting off a business or testing out a concept is more accessible by going with a food truck or trailer versus a brick and mortar. So it's a lower startup cost, which is very exciting because hopefully that's going to encourage more entrepreneurs to share their concepts, share their ideas with us.