Consumers crave new gastronomic adventures, which explains why food trucks are part of America’s culinary revolution. The trucks have barreled into Delaware, too, and foodies Norrawit Milburn and Jeanne DiAmico are revving their engines.
Jeanne (Rutowski) DiAmico
When Wilmington University alumna Jeanne Rutowski earned her bachelor’s in human resource management in 1996, then her M.S.M. with a concentration in human resource management in 2001, she didn’t know she would one day help run a successful catering and concessionaire business known to Delawareans statewide as Backyard Louie’s BBQ.
She had attended WilmU initially while working full-time at MBNA, in its payroll department. “Human resources was something I was interested in,” she says. “It was the best fit for me, as far as communication and developing people skills. I had no idea how useful all that would be later in life, as I shifted gears to work in the food industry.”
Rutowski, who became Jeanne DiAmico when she married barbeque chef Lou DiAmico in 2001, felt that her WilmU education rendered extensive knowledge about human resources; however, it also taught her discipline.
“If you have the drive, wherewithal and patience to obtain a degree,” she says, “that’s a big part of what prepares you for the future. From my education at WilmU, I certainly amassed a core skill set, but aside from all the knowledge, it taught me perseverance.”
Everything DiAmico has done since graduating, in fact, has been grounded in determination. She made the decision to leave MBNA and move her family to the Lewes , Del., beach area. She also started a small computer consulting business on her own. “And I developed the drive I needed to do that at Wilmington,” she says. “When I went back for my master’s, I took all block and modular courses, and completed my degree quickly. WilmU was the institution that allowed me to finish at my pace, and that’s just the way I do things.”
DiAmico and her husband now run Backyard Louie’s BBQ, a mobile food service in Lewes that was inspired by Lou’s masterful grilling skills. He had entered his barbecue sauce in several competitions and kept winning. DiAmico encouraged her husband to take his talents to the next level and start a business, which the couple did in 2010.
“My study at WilmU helped me deal more effectively with vendors,” says DiAmico. “You learn a lot about personalities when you study human resources, and the knowledge I accrued was invaluable, in terms of working with various types of people at our events. Having the understanding of human resources and different behaviors is one of my strong points. I always say I’m a good judge of character, for better or worse.”
Backyard Louie’s BBQ is both a concessionaire and caterer, and its 24-foot trailer travels the state, scenting the air with Lou’s home-cooked brisket, ribs, crab cakes and potato tornados.
Last year, Lou left his longtime career in liquor sales to make Backyard Louie’s his full-time gig. But two weeks after making that transition, DiAmico was diagnosed with late Stage II breast cancer. She completed 10 months of treatment. But during this period, the business became meaningful both emotionally and financially. The family formed an even closer alliance. They dealt with hardship by working harder and achieving greater success.
“I was still a part of the business during my treatments,” says DiAmico. “I had to stay mentally involved to keep working toward our goal.” DiAmico completed her last treatment in May 2015.
Now she’s using the determination she amassed at WilmU to open a brick-and-mortar location for Backyard Louie’s BBQ. The likelihood of it succeeding is good: Countless Delawareans crave Lou’s food — especially that secret sauce.
Known as Chef Norrawit or the Thai Guy, Milburn earned his bachelor’s in business marketing from Wilmington University in 2006. But he didn’t use his degree to don a suit and tie. Instead, he dusted off a business plan he had completed for a WilmU class, and with his parents, used it to open UBON, a Thai restaurant in Wilmington’s Shipyard Center on the Riverfront. UBON is a thriving business, but Milburn wanted to hit the road — literally — and with his wife, Jody, opened the hugely popular food truck Kapow.
Milburn didn’t know it at the time, but the foundation he built at WilmU prepared him for an exciting culinary career. “I had the cooking skills,” he says, “but I needed to learn how to build a brand.”
And build he did.
Just one month after opening, Kapow was added to Zagat’s “10 Reasons to Drive to Wilmington” list, and also was a Best of 2014 Readers’ Choice winner in the News Journal. While its home base is northern Delaware, Kapow makes its way to Newark, Dewey, Baltimore and Philadelphia. (It hits the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts every Thursday.) Foodies crave its Asian fusion goodies, like Kimchi tacos, Buddha Bellies, Huli Huli bowls and Thai Ta Tas.
Milburn appeared on “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2008, then several years later, co-founded the Rolling Revolution, a team of regional vending truck owners and operators who hope to sustain the industry and foster a sense of community. This fall, he’ll open a brick-and-mortar location in the Boothwyn Farmers market, aptly named Kapow Kitchen.
Thanks to customer demand, Milburn is using his WilmU business acumen to market his Thai Guy Sauce, and will self-publish his cookbook, “Thai Guy Cooking with Kapow.” Both will be available this year. WU