After 20 years of marriage, at the age of 43, Yvonne Anderson-Thomas found herself in free fall: Her husband filed for divorce and she hadn’t completed her nursing degree. To make ends meet, she started selling baked goods at food festivals near her in Boise, Idaho, drawing on her experience running a bakery. However, at the festivals, she realized customers would pass her by, with vague promises of saving room for dessert.
“I realized, shoot, the savory food people were making all the money!” she says. So Yvonne decided to sell smoked turkey legs, an old family favorite. After seeing her initial success, a generous friend loaned her several thousand dollars to buy a truck. Soon enough, Brown Shuga was up and running, and Yvonne was working three events in a day with the help of her son Daniel, a college student, some seasonal workers and friends who’d volunteer for free food.
Running a food truck isn’t cheap. Aside from licensing, fees and the truck itself, there was a lot to buy: a fridge, freezer, smoker, food warmers, prep tables, straws, lids, cups, napkins, serving boats, parchment—not to mention all the ingredients. Luckily, a local women’s shelter allowed Yvonne to park her vehicle in its lot, and she repaid the kindness by donating her tips and extra food.
To keep up with Brown Shuga’s growing demand, Yvonne soon added a second truck, and today both trucks are known for on her popular soul-food recipes. “It’s Southern cuisine in the African-American tradition, the kind of food we’d have at Grandma’s for Sunday dinner,” she says. “I want to bring people that kind of memory.”
On her proudest moment:
After initially opening up shop, “It felt like, ‘When will my customers come?” Yvonne remembers. Now, five years later, she has collected a host of awards, including one for best food truck. “Finally, when I say, ‘Brown Shuga Soul Food,’ people know the name, and it makes me feel so good,” she says.
On overcoming setbacks:
The truck’s pipes burst two winters in a row, so Yvonne now operates May through October and works as a culinary instructor to fill in the gaps. “I had some struggles, but I keep at it everyday,” she says. “If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way no matter what obstacles come at you.”
On the unexpected joy of starting over:
A decade ago, Yvonne never imagined that she’d be running a food truck. Looking back, the move makes sense: As a military spouse, she had always loved cooking and baking for functions on base. She credits much of her success to the resourcefulness she gained in those years of frequent moves and long deployments, and still draws on that strength today: “I feel like I have succeeded in letting people know who I am.”
On the pursuit of perfection:
To get her cornbread just right, Yvonne tried 20 recipes. And she spent years tweaking her ribs until she hit on her magic combo of ingredients. “When I tried them,” she says, “I instantly fell in love.” It’s no wonder customers keep coming back for more.
Get the recipe for Yvonne’s famous barbecue chicken below. (Tip: Just a touch of liquid smoke makes the sauce irresistible. Look for brands with only two ingredients: water and smoke.)
Brown Shuga’s Smoked Chicken Legs
1 tbsp. garlic powder1 tbsp. paprikaKosher saltPepper6 chicken legs¼ c. apple cider vinegar¼ c. water¼ c. brown sugar2 tbsp. ketchup1 tsp. molasses1 tsp. liquid smoke1 clove garlic3 c. wood chips
- In a small bowl, combine the garlic powder, paprika, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Rub all over the chicken and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 1 day.
- Place the wood chips in the smoker according to manufacturer’s instructions and heat to 225 degrees F, then place the chicken on the racks bone-side down and cook, turning halfway through, until the internal temperature is 165 degrees F, 2 to 3 hours.
- If you do not have a smoker: Remove the grill grates from one side of a gas grill and heat over medium-high heat. Tear 4 pieces of heavy-duty foil. Divide the chips between two pieces of foil, then sandwich with the other pieces. Fold over all of the edges to seal. Use a fork to poke holes in the top piece of foil. Place one foil package directly on the burner and let cook until the package begins to smoke, about 5 minutes. Let smoke for 5 minutes, then reduce heat to medium-low (the package should still be smoking).
- Place the chicken on the other side of the grill opposite the foil package, bone-side down (the chicken is on the grill grates over the burners not in use). Cover the grill and cook, turning the chicken halfway through, until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F, 2 to 3 hours (if your grill has a temperature gauge, try to maintain 225 degrees F to 235 degrees F with the burners not directly under the chicken). If the foil packet stops smoking, replace with the second one, increasing the heat to get it smoking and reducing heat after it has started.
- Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, ketchup, molasses, liquid smoke, and garlic. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until slightly thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Brush over the cooked chicken. Or, if desired, before serving, increase grill to medium-high and grill the chicken, turning and basting with the sauce, until the skin is beginning to char, about 5 minutes.