When 2 a.m. rolls around in downtown Madison, the streets are filled with shouts of joy from a night on the town and growls of stomachs hungry for something non-liquid. While pizza joints and Parthenon are always available, those who crave something a little less meat and a little more sweet have been pretty much out of luck. That is, until now.
You may have seen it outside of Asian Kitchen one hazy night, or you may have gotten a coupon for it on Library Mall, but consider this your official introduction to Fried and Fabulous, the late-night food truck that brings the carnival to your mouth with battered and fried peanut butter cups, cheesecake and more.
“I’m in the business of making people happy,” said Fried and Fabulous owner and UW grad Steven Lawrence, who knows that the way to the late-night crowd’s heart is through their stomach.
Lawrence was first inspired to foray into bartime sweets by a fateful trip to California a few years ago. “I was visiting my friend in Berkeley, and I end up at this donut shop and I’m amazed by the freshly fried donuts,” he said. “Have you ever had a donut fresh out of the fryer, warm, dripping with icing, gooey? It’s a totally different experience than one that is cold. It’s like fresh baked warm cookies versus oreos. So I was really amazed by these freshly fried donuts and it hit me that hot and sweet has a specific appeal to the late night market.”
That trip was in the summer of 2008. When Lawrence returned to UW, he got to work. “I went back and I looked at different bar areas around the country and around the world,” he said. While he found “sweet crepes being served to bar crowds in France,” and “little donut balls in syrup in India,” in Madison there were only cookies to be had. By the time Lawrence graduated in December 2010, the late night cookie spots had either been shut down or closed their doors, leaving a dessert-shaped hole in nighttime food offerings.
But cookies weren’t Lawrence’s bag. “Cookies weren’t going to work because they take too long to bake,” he said. Donuts, the catalyst for his food cart idea, were out too, because, “you try fitting frying, sugaring, icing and decorating in a cart,” as Lawrence said. State Fair style frying – that is, dipping dessert items in batter and frying them, was the option he finally picked.
After perfecting the funnel cake batter recipe and frying up 100 or so items for a taste test, Lawrence settled on his menu: fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fried cheesecake, fried peanut butter cups, fried twinkie, fried snickers, fried brownie, fried oreo, and fried chocolate chip cookie dough balls, with one special menu item that changes nightly to provide more variety and accommodate customer requests.
“The one thing I was really insistent on from the start, because this sort of harkened back to that original experience back in the donut shop, was that we were going to fry everything fresh to order so it always comes out hot,” he said. “Fried food tastes best when it’s burning your tongue just a little bit, you know what I mean”?
Lawrence opened Fried and Fabulous this April, and he has stuck by his promise of desserts that are always hot off the fryer. “I don’t own any warming lamps, I don’t have any heating boxes,” he said. What he does have is 850+ likes on Facebook, between 400-500 customers a week and more than a few crazy stories.
Although he happily shared a few of his stories (one involving a battle over the last free PB&J sample, another in which a girl on a diet annihilated a fried cheesecake in 40 seconds), he talked about the fulfillment of owning his own business and mentioned one of his loyal customers by name (while sharing that his most loyal customers are in fact the men’s rowing team). For Lawrence, bringing joy to all of his customers is the most rewarding part of his job.
“So many people have told me, ‘you’ve got to sell meat, you’re not going to do ok at night if you don’t sell chicken,’ and so many people were skeptical of the idea of [a] sweets-only cart,” he said. “But there’s kind of this moment where people bite into it, and they look so happy, and it just makes sense, and it works. Watching customers bite into the food and enjoy the food is probably the most rewarding thing that I do, because that’s what it’s all about.”
To keep the enjoyment rolling, Fried and Fabulous will not only brave the winter months, but also bring new breakfast treats to the Farmer’s Market next spring. And though the cart’s welcome week coupon blast may not be back until next semester at the earliest, Lawrence will continue to reward his loyal customers by treating them to deals on the cart’s Facebook page and taking their requests for fried items.
“I want my customers to be happy, to love my food, to want to give me their money,” he said. And Fried and Fabulous will leave no dessert unfried in its quest to bring happiness to the latenight masses.
Fried and Fabulous is open Thursday – Saturday from midnight – 3 a.m. Find out more at www.facebook.com/FriedandFabulous