Same-sex couples navigate food partnerships with success
Story by Brett Kell
Photography by Joe Laedtke
The sign on their food truck reads: “Because Nice Matters.”
Katherine and Tina Tonn, owners of The Gouda Girls food truck, shared a dismissive laugh while recalling the one time they can remember this attitude, and their sexuality, being tested. At a play they were attending, a young man sitting behind them leaned in to tell them they would burn in hell. Tina didn’t even hear him over the din of the room. She simply smiled back.
“In eight years together, if that’s the only time we’ve had someone be negative toward us, that’s pretty cool,” said Katherine.
Over the past decade, the stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have slowly crept inward from the margins of public discourse at both the local and national levels. Now their stories of being out are no longer “out there”; they’re here.
Milwaukee’s place in this discourse is a paradox: ours is a city known nationally for racial segregation yet beloved (or at least respected) locally for the relative diversity and quantity of ethnic restaurants and food businesses. The same might be true of the city’s perceptions of same-sex couples and gay marriage, in that how things might sometimes seem can differ from reality.
Despite the social and political debates that continue to rage around them, the approximately 10,000 same-sex couples in Wisconsin (see sidebar) are forging ahead. Some have found success and a positive community reception locally as partners in food businesses.
Ono Kine Grindz
David Lau and Guy Roeseler can recall the day they made the decision to open their Hawaiian restaurant and store, Ono Kine Grindz, on 72nd and North Ave. in Wauwatosa.
It was 2009, and the couple was in Chicago hunting for some Hawaiian goods that Lau, an Oahu native born to Chinese parents, knew well. But they simply couldn’t be found. The two men had an epiphany.
“We discovered that there was no Hawaiian store east of the Mississippi, and I had always wanted to have a little store,” Roeseler recalled. “So we thought, let’s open one.”
What was intended to be only a Hawaiian grocery store (the phrase ‘ono kine grindz’ derives from Hawaiian pidgin and is slang for “really good food”) quickly grew when Roeseler, a chef by trade, began making Hawaiian food items to sell at the counter. The classic Hawaiian plate lunch—sticky rice, macaroni salad and carrot pineapple slaw served with char siu chicken, kalua pork, or a combination of both—is a core menu item, along with other traditional Hawaiian dishes like tuna poke, laulau, saimin and others.
“It took off,” he said.
It used to be that there were gay restaurants and straight restaurants. Now there are just restaurants. People have evolved… It’s not even an issue. It’s about a unit of family, and everyone can relate to that.
The restaurant’s Hawaiian roots began in 1996 when Roeseler, a Wisconsin native living in Seattle, arrived with a backpack to visit his sick mother for three days. He stayed for 11 years.
For part of this time, he lived in the guest house on Lau’s mother’s property, which is how the two met. After falling in love, and buying Lau’s parents’ house, they later found themselves wanting to try life on the mainland. In 2008 they moved to Wisconsin, where Lau worked at the Pfister Hotel as an off-site catering manager.
When they opened Ono Kine Grindz, Lau and Roeseler managed to avoid the cliché of the couple whose business quarrels undermine their partnership.
“People said ‘Oh my God, you’re going to work together?’” Roeseler recalled. “But David does the front of the house, and I do the back. I do the cooking and ordering and bills, and David works with the staff [Cina, Malia, Fred, J.R., Xiara and Amber, a native Hawaiian who creates all their delectable desserts], and we don’t cross. You have to divide what you do, and we get along really well when we do that.”
“Our biggest problem, actually, is that we’ve been more successful than we expected,” he added. “I was planning on just working by myself here, having a little store, and suddenly we’re doing catering and getting huge, and that’s been a bigger stress than not doing enough.”
Roeseler said there are about 600 people from Hawaii who live in Wisconsin and northern Illinois, comprising a devoted clientele who visit to stock up on familiar Hawaiian favorites like Portuguese sausage, flavored salts, hot sauces, snack foods, sodas, books and Kona coffee. This clientele, along with Milwaukeeans who can’t get enough home-style Hawaiian cooking, has brought success.
“We’ve created a sense of place where we can be proud of our roots,” said Lau. “All the foods we serve, I used to be so ashamed to serve back home because it was provincial plantation food.
But as I grew older, now I understand and embrace the history in these dishes.” As for the potential hurdles of being a same-sex couple going into business together, Roeseler and Lau have had no difficulties.
“If we were married, it probably would have made some things easier, but we own the business together,’ said Roeseler. “The city has been really open and supportive of us.”
Roeseler predicted this warm reception from the community, based on his experience in and around Milwaukee.
“I always told David, people in Wisconsin just don’t care—as long as you’re cool and you’re treating them well, they’ll treat you well. It’s funny; this isn’t a ‘gay’ restaurant. I think of us as a couple who just happen to run a restaurant. That’s what’s nice. It used to be that there were gay restaurants and straight restaurants. Now there are just restaurants. People have evolved… It’s not even an issue. It’s about a unit of family, and everyone can relate to that.”
For Gregory León, owning a restaurant has been a dream more than two decades in the making. While working in countless kitchens for other chefs, he cultivated a keen desire to cook the cuisine he grew up with in Venezuela. Today, it’s a dream he shares with his life and business partner, Orry DeYoung.
The couple own Amilinda, a restaurant and cooking school they hope to open to the public in late spring. León’s family lived in a house called Amilinda, a combination of his parents’ names, Amilcar and Linda, following a Venezuelan naming tradition. The mash-up is fitting.
“My parents did a lot of cooking at home,” he said. “It wasn’t like we had a lot of fancy food, but it was always from scratch and it was important to us. That’s where my passion for food came from. It wasn’t until my early 20s (that) I realized I could be a chef.”
Born in Oklahoma to a Catholic father from Venezuela and a Jewish mother from Wisconsin, León lived in Venezuela from ages 5 to 19, when his family returned to Oklahoma. At 24, he moved to San Francisco and worked as a chef until visiting a friend in Milwaukee in 2012. He liked it so much he stayed and quickly met DeYoung, whose ambitions aligned with his own.
“Growing up, I tossed around the idea of opening up a restaurant, but it never seemed like it could be a real thing,” said DeYoung. “But ever since living in Milwaukee, I’ve worked in the service industry doing front-of-house stuff—bartender, server, manager—so it’s worked out to be a perfect fit with Greg’s skills.”
A California native who came to Wisconsin at 19, DeYoung owns a web design company and assists at MKE Kitchen, a commercial cooking space in Riverwest.
My parents did a lot of cooking at home. It wasn’t like we had a lot of fancy food, but it was always from scratch and it was important to us.
To build interest in the seasonal Spanish, Portuguese, Venezuelan and Deep South flavors that will be featured at Amilinda, the pair have hosted four well-received pop-up dinners locally, with another scheduled for April at Cocina DeLeón, a gourmet enchilada shop in Brookfield.
“May’s dinner will be in the kitchen of our restaurant,” León said optimistically. He and DeYoung are still in the process of securing funding and locating a space, but they remain confident on both fronts. They launched an Indiegogo.com crowd-funding campaign in mid-February aimed at raising $30,000 in 60 days. Their goal is to locate Amilinda in or near Walker’s Point, a fast-growing foodie district in Milwaukee.
But Amilinda will be more than just a restaurant—León and DeYoung hope it will also be a catalyst for community support and culinary education.
“During the day when the space isn’t being used, our plan is to offer cooking classes for mid- to lower-income families,” especially those in the Latino community surrounding Walker’s Point, León said. “Eating local and organic and farm fresh… can be expensive. There’s a whole segment of the population that isn’t benefiting from that movement—either they don’t know how to get to it or they think it’s out of their price range.”
Their goal is to impart practical wisdom: how to break down a whole chicken to use for three or four meals, how to get to nearby farmers markets by bus, which of them take WIC and food stamps, which speak Spanish, and more.
If the Amilinda partnership succeeds, it won’t be the first time they’ve overcome long odds. Their first date at popular Bay View restaurant Odd Duck was a disaster.
“I thought he was a wack-job,” said DeYoung. “It was not a good date. The place was jam-packed. There was a lot of mumbling. I didn’t think it would work out, but here we are.”
The couple agreed that while they haven’t experienced anything less than acceptance from those they’ve encountered on the journey to open Amilinda, there can be other pitfalls.
“The thing I’m having to overcome is not that I’m opening this thing with my partner, but the fact that this is something I’ve thought about every waking moment for the past 20 years,” said León. “So in my mind there are certain things already set in stone. But the measure of a good business owner is realizing what your strengths and weaknesses are. Orry’s done a lot of things I wouldn’t have a clue how to do whatsoever, so I couldn’t do this without him.”
The Gouda Girls
The intoxicating aroma of melted cheese isn’t the only thing emanating from The Gouda Girls food truck. Alongside the award-winning array of grilled cheese sandwiches, a cheesesteak, black bean burger, chicken cordon bleu sandwich and even grilled mac and cheese, to scratch-made soups and 50 varieties of Rice Krispie treats, there’s also a whole lot of love being served up.
Owners Katherine and Tina Tonn may be the nicest people you’ve ever met, and they want to feed you.
The Tonns’ path to food truck royalty was an unlikely one. Katherine spent 20 years in Alaska running a private preschool, raising three kids with her husband, and serving as a Sunday school teacher, Boy Scout and Girl Scout leader. After a divorce, she returned to Wisconsin in 1995, bringing the preschool with her and resuming life at a breakneck pace. Tina, meanwhile, rambled the open road driving semis, limousines, motor coaches, school buses, medical transports and, for 12 years, dump trucks. They met one another through a mutual friend.
“Katherine’s a hugger, so she hugged me, and the first thing it said in my heart was ‘home,’” Tina tearfully recalled. “I didn’t realize she’d end up liking me too!”
Years later when stress-related health problems gave Katherine a wake-up call, she and Tina sought an occupation that would allow them to work together and have more fun. Enamored of the Food Network series “The Great Food Truck Race,” they did some research. During a visit to Milwaukee from their home in Neenah in 2010, the couple visited three local trucks at Cathedral Square Park downtown.
It’s not that we’re trying to be brave or carry a flag or anything, it’s just who we are. We went into this wanting the people around us to share our mission of kindness, generosity and authenticity.
The encouragement and kindness they received that day cemented their plan to move to the city and make a run at the food truck business. The Tonns credit much of their eventual success to the counsel from Scott Baitinger, co owner of Streetza Pizza—one of the first food trucks in Milwaukee, named the best food truck in America by Bloomberg News.
After buying a used food truck on eBay, they moved here in May 2012 and bought a former deli in Bay View, bringing the commercial kitchen space up to code and moving in upstairs.
In just two years, they have amassed corporate contracts that place their truck outside businesses where they feed 75-150 people each lunch hour alone. They also handle a steady stream of festivals, tournaments, weddings and other events. The invitations keep coming, and The Gouda Girls regularly top vendor polls done by the companies they serve.
“We haven’t advertised yet at all, and our dance card is full,” said Katherine. “We hardly have any openings for the summer, day or night.”
They don’t mind the growing pains.
“There’s not a day we get up going, ‘Aw shit, we’ve gotta go here and we’ve gotta go there,’” said Tina. “We’ve never said that in three years of doing this. We love our job.”
In 2013, the Tonns worked with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board to promote Wisconsin cheeses, including at the Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship, held near Madison. Their Roma sandwich was voted grand champion two years ago in the first year of the competition, and their buffalo chicken grilled cheese won first place last year. This got the attention of the World Food Championships in Las Vegas, earning the pair an invite to compete last November.
There, they placed second out of 50 competitors to earn a spot in the final round of 10, where they won second place overall, missing first place (carrot cake) by only half a point.
“Second place,” repeated Katherine. “In the world!”
A film crew followed the competitors, including the Tonns, and a television series will air in early 2014. Their high marks earned them a repeat WFC invite, and they’ve been asked to serve as ambassadors. Food Network and Spike TV have made TV offers.
That Katherine and Tina’s wildly different personal histories delivered them to each other and legitimate food stardom is underscored by their palpable affection.
“I never kept it a secret that I was gay; that was just part of who I was,” Tina said. “It doesn’t define me, and it doesn’t define us. It’s not like we’ve ever had to ask for acceptance. We are who we are.”“I had been married twice, to men,” said Katherine, “and I had never been with a woman or been interested in women, but it was her. It was her that I fell in love with. It wasn’t an orientation. That’s why we want to be supportive of those who may be in the same situation. We love to be a positive influence and a good example for those who may be struggling with [their sexuality].”
The pair was joined in a civil union on August 10, 2009, during the first week domestic partnership certificates were available in Wisconsin.
“It’s not that we’re trying to be brave or carry a flag or anything, it’s just who we are,” said Katherine. “We went into this wanting the people around us to share our mission of kindness, generosity and authenticity.”
“It’s beyond just customer service for us… It’s about the lost art of caring,” she said. “It shows you’re paying attention. People say every story’s been told. Not true. Everybody’s got something fascinating to say or an experience to share, something that’s deeper than what you see on the surface. That’s why we do what we do.”
Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce an Emerging Resource
The Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce has a simple purpose: promote economic opportunities for the LGBT community by being an advocate and resource for all member businesses that promote equality. Formed only 15 months ago, it already has more than 120 members statewide, adding about two each week. Most members are professional service firms, while about 15% are food- or beverage-related businesses.
Jason Rae, executive director of the Chamber and chair of the Milwaukee County Human Rights Commission, said that the Chamber’s members are largely small businesses averaging between two and 10 employees.
“What we’ve found is there are a number of consumers who want to do business with those who share their values,” Rae said. “We get at least a couple of calls a day from people saying ‘I’m trying to find X, Y, or Z,’ anything from a restaurant to an attorney or a doctor. We want to make sure that people know LGBT-owned and -allied businesses are out there.”
The Chamber also offers the opportunity for LGBT-owned member businesses to become certified LGBT Business Enterprises. The Wisconsin LGBT Chamber will conduct a site visit and file a report with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, that adds the business to a list of vendors who can be selected by the national Chamber’s corporate partners—the likes of Wells Fargo, PNC Bank and others—as part of their supplier diversity initiatives.
Rae said there haven’t been many obstacles to gay-owned businesses being successful. “Once they’re established, there’s a lot of support from the community.”
The Chamber hosts an event, usually a networking breakfast or happy hour, each month in Milwaukee. Some include topical sessions, and in the future will feature elected officials and others who will educate members on how things like the Affordable Care Act, small business taxes, or immigration reform may impact them.
Download the Chamber’s iPhone app, Wisconsin LGBT Chamber, for a listing and locations of member businesses.
Brett Kell is a freelance writer and communications professional. He has contributed to various publications, websites, and media, and has won awards for feature writing. His poetry has appeared in Emergency Almanac, Paj Ntaub Voice, KNOCK, Clare, Bakka and others, and he’s spent years on a chapbook called “Nonce Words” that might eventually see the light of day. In his spare time, he nurtures a fondness for Milwaukee restaurants, bars and artisans. He also collects watches, drinks scotch, enjoys music, and roots for the Packers. Brett and his wife, Lauren, live in Caledonia with their two children.
Joe Laedtke has been a life-long food enthusiast, starting when he was still a kid growing up in Washington Heights, watching his grandma Shirley intently as she taught him her secret recipes for onion dip, turkey gravy, and rouladen, and even through college as he delivered pizzas throughout the greater Ripon area in a 1978 AMC Pacer. These days, he proudly represents the unique combination of freelance photographer and licensed funeral director, and has garnered national attention with his website, Eating Milwaukee, including a segment on CBS This Morning. He has absolutely no willpower whatsoever around essentially any Asian cuisine.