After launching the Happy Dishes food truck last summer, serving hungry diners around the State College area with his creative menus and time-tested culinary chops, Michael Johnson is already taking the brand to a more permanent spot.
He plans to open a location in the Nittany Mall in the coming months.
“I just wanted a more family-friendly location for people to come, hang out and not worry about (the weather). (It’s an) opportunity to help build up the mall a little bit as well,” Johnson said.
As he watched other restaurants opening, including more mom-and-pop, family-style restaurants, around the region, Johnson decided now was the right time to add the Happy Dishes name to State College’s dining options. The food truck will still be operational after the mall location (in the former Golden Ladle spot) opens in mid-May or early June, and will even extend its service, he said.
“We’re going to try to move around a little bit more,” Johnson said of the food truck. “I’d actually like to go more outside of the State College area, to Philipsburg, Boalsburg, Bellefonte ...”
Now, you can mostly find the Happy Dishes food truck stationed on Science Park Road and at Mercedes-Benz of State College.
“We’re getting a lot more people and a lot more businesses asking us to be at their location. We’ve also reached out and heard back from Penn State as well and will possibly set up in certain locations around the campus,” Johnson said.
As far as the Nittany Mall location, right now Johnson said most of his time is dedicated to bringing the space up to code, remodeling the kitchen and creating a unique aesthetic that he describes as “rustic classy.”
The new spot will offer more menu options, but Johnson’s lips are sealed as far as the details.
“I’m going to be adding more to the menu. We’re going to be running more specials, because it’ll be a bigger space and we’ll be able to handle more volume in that area. We’ll be able to increase the menu a little bit more,” he said, but noted that he wants the more specific menu changes to be a surprise. However, based on the brand’s current menu of Southern-style comfort food, ranging from chicken and waffles to fried fish and corn cakes, diners can likely hope for more of the same, with Happy Dishes being one of the lone brands in State College serving up this type of cuisine.
It seems Johnson will hardly be left wanting for a good culinary staff when he does open his doors at Nittany Mall. He’s reaching back into his years working as food and beverage director for brands like Hilton and Marriott, as well as his time as an executive chef at top restaurant on Long Island, to find qualified individuals to join his venture.
“I’ve had a lot of people who worked for me in Philadelphia and on Long Island that would like to join my team, so ... there are quite a few people who are looking to relocate to this area to join me,” he said.
Following this rapid growth, what’s next for the Happy Dishes brand?
“My goal is to open probably two other Happy Dishes and, after that, possibly try to go into fine dining,” Johnson said.