When Michael and Kennita Johnson moved to the State College area from Long Island a few years ago for Kennita’s job as a general and breast surgeon in Tyrone, it meant Michael had to leave his job as an executive chef. Over the course of his 25 years in the food industry, he’s acted as a food and beverage director for brands like Hilton and Marriott, an area manager for TGI Fridays and Ruby Tuesdays, and an executive chef for some of the top restaurants on Long Island including RUMBA and Cowfish.
While the move could have resulted in a dead end for a less entrepreneurial spirit, Michael decided to channel his wealth of experience into a new venture — Happy Dishes food trailer. He purchased the trailer last October and, after obtaining all the necessary permits, opened in mid-June. Now, you can find Happy Dishes at the DaVita State College Dialysis Center on Science Park Road during lunchtime, Monday-Friday, and in the former Denny’s parking lot on North Atherton Street on Friday evenings and Saturdays.
Wanting to offer flavors that would appeal to both students and families in the area, Michael works to bring new styles of food to Happy Valley through a creatively mouthwatering menu. So far, he said the response has been great, noting that diners have been posting about their Happy Dishes experience on Facebook and Instagram.
The clear best-seller on the menu so far is the Happy Burger — a 10-ounce patty topped with pulled brisket, applewood bacon, crumbled bleu cheese, barbecue sauce and coleslaw. There are a few items on the menu that Michael said stick out better than others, with their unique flavor combinations, and the Happy Burger is one of them. Others include the chicken and waffles (two buttermilk-fried chicken breasts with Belgian waffles and topped with a maple gravy dressing), French toast and ribs (topped with a bourbon butter sauce) and corn cakes with fried fish (fried flounder with grilled corn cakes and an apple-glazed syrup).
The menu is still under development and Michael is waiting to get a larger response on certain items before making menu changes. He said he is able to cater to customers with certain dietary needs and restrictions, even if these options aren’t listed on the menu.
Other menu items include a selection of salads, sandwiches, wings and southern-style sides like collard greens, potato salad and country baked beans. A relatively affordable lunch option, choices range from $7–$20 (if you’re in the mood for a full rack of ribs before heading back to the office).
While Michael has loved hearing the positive feedback from his customers, he does acknowledge that there are still challenges ahead.
“Not having enough locations to set up ... tends to be the biggest challenge, and probably finding more (resources in) the townships ... to help small businesses develop,” he said. “I thought it would be a little bit easier to find locations to set up and (reach) more people.”
During the upcoming fall semester and football season, Michael hopes to find other locations to better reach the student population and sports fans. One of his eventual goals is to collaborate with other food trucks and vendors in the area to create an alley-style food truck gathering, benefiting both the food trucks and residents who might not be familiar with all the food truck options in State College. He’s also working to increase his partnerships with local producers to source ingredients. He currently works with Hogs Galore in Philipsburg to source some of his pork products, but otherwise finds a lot of his produce and seafood in Reading.