Pitchfork in the park
By Steve Lackmeyer
A couple whose families have farmed Oklahoma since the land runs of the 1890s is set to open a new cafe at the Myriad Gardens as they expand from a food truck they started less than two years ago.
Jacob and Andra Conger are relative newcomers to the food truck scene, having started up their Pitchfork Kitchen & Bakery in September 2015. But in that short time, the couple drew a loyal following with an array of local menu items including cinnamon rolls, unique sandwich offerings and old family recipes.
Hunter Wheat, owner of the city's leading food truck park, Bleu Garten, ranks Pitchfork among the top three operators among 76 that visited last season in terms of popularity.
“There isn't a truck that does better than Pitchfork,” Wheat said. “They've got a good system. They serve a lot of food, they do it fast, and it's great. And they're creative — they have a bacon chocolate chip cookie that is out of this world.”
The same buzz caught the interest of Maureen Heffernan, director of the Myriad Gardens Foundation, as she sought a new operator to take over at the former Ice House cafe operated by Peter Holloway. After initially being branded as an extension of the legendary Nic's Grill, the Ice House in later years went without that association and the agreement with the foundation ended last fall.
Heffernan wanted an operator who knew how to work with a seasonal business and understood the ebb and flow of event-driven business downtown. She contacted Pitchfork early in the solicitation for a new operator.
“They're young, they're hungry and they want to expand from their food truck,” Heffernan said. “They are very popular.”
The cafe, to be named “Pitchfork in the Park,” will open in May. A makeover will include what Jacob Conger says will be a warmer, more nostalgic look for the cafe, which is open spring through fall. They also are fulfilling a request by Heffernan that they serve ice cream.
“She was big on ice cream,” he said. “We can't believe it was not done yet. We're stringing Edison-style lights outside on the patio, redoing the awnings and sign. It will no longer be the Ice House.”
The pair also will be expanding the menu to include healthy items, including salads and grilled chicken.
The Congers' story isn't one that started out as being destined for the food truck business. They met while attending Oklahoma City University. Jacob operated a catering and event center while Andra taught children's theater in Oklahoma City Public Schools.
A loss of funding for her program led to the career change for the couple. The answer, it turned out, was back on their family farms.
Andra's family did the Cherokee Strip land run in 1893 and settled their farm on land they staked in Garber near Enid. It was at her family's Bar-D Farms that their initial idea of setting up a food truck started with an eye on a rusted 1952 Ford F6 wheat truck.
It needed work, but with quite a bit of body work and a new engine, it helped set the vibe for their idea of old school, local recipes with a modern twist. At first Jacob thought the food truck would allow them to adapt to the changing wedding event business that was gravitating to more rural settings like farms and vineyards that had no catering of their own.
Instead, they won a following with appearances at venues like Bleu Garten. They used beef from Bar-D Farms. Jacob's family, meanwhile, still owns and operates the D.C. Cattle Co. ranch in Warren on land they settled after making the 1896 land run in southwest Oklahoma.
“We are true Okies to the core,” Jacob said. “And we've taken some of my grandma's recipes, a cake baker, and Andra's biscuit recipes from her grandmother.”
The pecans in their recipes are cracked and prepared by Jacob's grandmother. They struck a deal with Blue and Gold for sausages and other meats while arranging with Oklahoma City Schwab to provide hot dogs. They have their coffee blend from local roaster Crown Coffee. Their pepper jelly is an old family recipe.
The menu will include the basics — hot dogs, hamburgers, and both softserve and made-from-scratch regular ice cream.
Andra will be managing Pitchfork in the Gardens, and the pair say they have a crew mostly assembled to staff the new cafe. They want the pricing to be affordable and, as with the food truck, easy to calculate by including the sales tax within each menu price. If an item is listed at $2, the bill for that item will be $2.
The initial plan is to be open 11 a.m. through 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. They may, however, expand their hours during summer weekends, special events, and Thunder games.
“It's a lot like the business we run,” Jacob said. “We know weather can affect us. It's the next step for our expansion. It's a perfect fit.”