The Gouda Girls, A Love Story
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.
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 Championship 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.
“Its 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.”