College Entrepreneurs Open a Food Truck and Solve a Problem in Small Town America

The Twisted Fry food truck started as a way for two Indiana State University (ISU) students to start their own business. DeSean Prentice and Devyn Mikell came up with the food truck idea to feed hungry college students late at night in Terre Haute, Indiana.

But what began as a simple concept became another matter entirely. The two young men ended up solving a critical problem facing college students, while changing local law at the same time; all while contributing to the economic impact of a small town at the Crossroad of America.

“I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur since the eighth grade,” said Mikell, 22, who recently graduated from ISU with a bachelor’s degree in supply chain management. He met fellow track athlete Prentice, 24, and a recent graduate of the ISU MBA program. In April 2016, after a five-hour brainstorm session, the two students decided a food truck for late night service would be the perfect business. Not only did the food truck idea have the potential to make money, it also addressed a big problem for college students — preventing drinking and driving.

Mikell and Prentice knew plenty of students who – after drinking alcohol in the evenings – wanted to grab some food when the parties ended. The problem was open restaurants were not in the vicinity of the ISU campus, which meant someone had to drive. A food truck that parked itself next to the campus and served food during the late night hours would solve this problem.

“We knew there was a market and need for this in Terre Haute because we’ve experienced it ourselves,” said Prentice. To make sure their idea was on the right track, they deployed a survey to ISU college students and found 41 percent of students admitted to driving for food after drinking alcohol. “We saw that as proof that this idea may actually work,” said Prentice.

From Concept to Launch

To get started on their food truck venture, Prentice and Mikell enlisted the help of the ISU Business Engagement Center, which serves as a resource for entrepreneurs, startups, established businesses, and not-for-profits. The Center and its faculty and staff provide team-based mentoring, business planning assistance, commercialization services, prototyping, design services, and assist with funding and financing.

Daniel Pigg, Director of the Business Engagement Center and Sycamore Innovation Lab, worked closely with Mikell and Prentice to really develop the concept and bring it to market.

“We were able to assist Twisted Fry with the development of a business plan, access to a broad network with industry experience, and we also provided them funding to help with startup expenses,” said Pigg.

There was only one – albeit big – problem with their new business idea. At the time, food trucks were illegal in Terre Haute. The city had a city ordinance that prohibited mobile vendors.

However, the obstacle didn’t stop Prentice and Mikell from pursuing their business dream. With the help of Launch Terre Haute, a co-working space for innovative start-up companies, they worked with the city council president to propose a new ordinance to allow food trucks to operate in the city. In July 2016, the Terre Haute City Council voted 9-0 in favor of the ordinance. Twisted Fry was officially in business.

The Twisted Fry food truck — which revolved around loaded French fries — opened for business in September 2016. The two entrepreneurs admitted they were overwhelmed by the success the truck experienced right from the start.

Their first night in business was at a festival in Brazil, IN, a small town just outside of Terre Haute. Prentice recalled planning for about 55 customers.

“We had a baby freezer and one prep table, and we thought it would be easy,” he said. “But once people saw the food, they kept coming and our line was stacked.”

“And then we ran out of food,” laughs Mikell.

But that didn’t stop the two students from serving their eager customers. They relied on friends to bring more food and supplies from Terre Haute to Brazil. After a hugely successful debut evening, Prentice and Mikell got a few hours sleep and got ready to do it all again the next night in Terre Haute.

The two new business owners learned from their first few events and quickly adapted their preparations and processes. Not even one year later, Twisted Fry is open Thursday through Sunday, from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., and serves approximately 120 people each night.

The Secret to Success

“I think the big reason we’ve been successful is because there was nothing like us,” said Prentice. “There was a need for something exciting in Terre Haute. We helped fulfill that need.”

“And our product is really good!” Mikell proudly adds.

The product, of course, is the loaded French fries. The best seller is the Total Chaos, which is barbecued pulled pork and buffalo chicken on top of French fries and topped with melted cheese. They also feature the Dark Night, a burger topped with pulled pork and fries, and deep-fried Oreos.

Mikell, who is in charge of marketing for Twisted Fry, believes the way they promote the food also brings customers to the truck.

“The photos we post on Instagram and Facebook, those are pictures of the actual products that we take and post to social media,” said Mikell. This is different from many other restaurants that post almost exclusively staged photos.

“With us, you know exactly what it’s going to look like because we posted the photo of the Total Chaos we made five minutes ago,” said Mikell. “People actually come to the truck and show us the Instagram photo and say, ‘I want that!’”

Making an Impact in Small Town America

The success of Twisted Fry is not only a significant achievement for Prentice and Mikell. It’s also a win for smaller towns like Terre Haute, which has seen its economic and job landscape change significantly over the last two decades.

“Terre Haute is the perfect starting place for a business,” said Mikell. “It’s a big enough town to have really exciting things, but it hasn’t yet embraced all that can be done. We found just one thing and it’s already getting people excited to be here.”

This community impact is what the ISU Business Engagement Center hopes to strengthen, along with helping student entrepreneurs realize their dreams.

“We work to fill a void in the community,” said Pigg. “The economic impact of job creation echoes in many different areas in the community, i.e. quality of life, additional tax dollars, more and better housing, and retention of talent.”

Both Mikell and Prentice believe that attending a university like ISU in a small town environment was key to their success.

“There’s no competition for resources and help that many student entrepreneurs face at larger universities in big cities,” said Prentice.

In 2016, the Center helped to create and more than 20 jobs to keep students and residents working in Terre Haute.

This is exactly the case with Twisted Fry. Prentice is originally from Queens, New York, but moved to Indiana when he was 10 and elected to attend ISU with an athletic scholarship. Both Prentice and Mikell will continue to make Terre Haute their home and the business base for Twisted Fry.

The Future of Twisted Fry

Now that the two entrepreneurs have gone from student to graduate, they have no plans to stop Twisted Fry. In fact, the company – which is turning a profit – is only beginning.

The Terre Haute truck will continue to operate throughout the school year, and they plan to open at least one additional Twisted Fry truck each year in other college towns. They plan to expand their catering options for corporate lunches and dinners, and attend community events.

A big milestone for Twisted Fry will be this fall when the truck participates in the Indiana Covered Bridge Festival, which draws more than 2 million visitors to central Indiana each year.

That’s a lot of people enjoying loaded fries in Indiana.

Photos courtesy of Twisted Fry

Originally published in The Good Men Project on Aug. 2, 2017

Leah R. Singer is a freelance writer and editor. She is known for uncovering unique angles and hidden gems, and then creating clear and compelling communication that creates impact. Leah writes stories about life in Terre Haute, Indiana to help people understand individuals living in Middle America and outside the coastal bubble. She is the former managing editor of the Red Tricycle Spoke Contributor Network, and also writes for USA Today, Huffington Post, Babble, Parent.co, Today Show Parenting, Scary Mommy, Indianapolis Star, Terre Haute Living, Beyond Your Blog, and many other publications.

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