New Meals Truck Fridays in Fort Wayne assist individuals with Down syndrome achieve work expertise

Summer is truck season in Fort Wayne, and this year there’s a new in town designed to help people with Down syndrome gain work experience by preparing and serving food on board a truck.

Food Truck Fridays is a new partnership between GiGi’s Playhouse and various Fort Wayne Food Trucks.

As a national organization headquartered in Hoffman Estates, IL, GiGi’s Playhouse opened its first Northeast location in Fort Wayne about five years ago, serving 25 families from the region. Since then, it has grown to include 305 families, helping people with Down syndrome from cradle to career with programs such as free tutoring, fitness training, and work experience in the workplace.

Every Friday this summer starting May 7th, GiGi’s will host a couple of food trucks at its 6081 N. Clinton St. location to help its career trainees, called ambassadors, gain work experience by serving the community of Feed Fort Wayne.
From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the food trucks offer specialties ranging from snacks and desserts to full menus. GiGi’s will also make smoothies through its Genesis Health Bar and sell them on site as well.

Megan Lock and Steve Mikulski work on the trolley food truck.

From the salsa grill to the King Arthur’s Trolley and more, the local food trucks attending Food Truck Fridays will do double duty. While they are serving up great food, they will also teach GiGi ambassadors the ins and outs of the food truck industry. Each truck will have an ambassador or two on board to help take orders and serve food.

“We just want to help give these people a chance (gain experience),” says Ashlynn Armstrong, catering assistant at Salsa Grill.

Armstrong is also the coordinator for the Salsa Grill Food Truck and helps plan the training work on her ’s truck.

“We’re going to teach them to make things like roll burritos,” she says. “Basically (we treat you) like you are working at a salsa grill location.”

Cameron Shomo works in the Salsa Grille Food Truck.

GiGis Playhouse in Fort Wayne works with families and individuals from across Northeast Indiana, Southeast Michigan, and Northwest Ohio. But in 2020 the pandemic will rock the way GiGi works, which also led to the creation of its Food Truck Fridays.

According to Mandy Drakeford, Executive Director of GiGis Playhouse in Fort Wayne, the center closed in March 2020 at the onset of -19. Then, to meet the essential needs of its clientele, it was quickly reopened.

“We switched to virtual programs within a week,” says Drakeford. Drakeford

In 2021 GiGis will work on a hybrid program model with options for personal and online participation, depending on personal preferences. Drakeford says adding a virtual option has helped her team better serve the needs of local families who may not be able to attend in person every week. It has also expanded its reach beyond the Fort Wayne area. As a network, GiGi’s now serves families in 45 different countries and across the United States.
“It was amazing to see this growth,” says Drakeford.

While GiGi’s online offerings have expanded their reach, one of the most important programs has taken a bumpy road during the pandemic: The Ambassador Program, which helps people with Down syndrome complete vocational training.

“In cities like Fort Wayne, post-high school adults with Down syndrome are lacking opportunities,” says Drakeford. “We want to make sure that our ambassadors find employment in our community if they decide this is the right path for them.”

GiGi’s Genesis Health Bar (housed in GiGi’s Playhouse) previously offered ambassadors a work experience, but when the pandemic and closure began, the restaurant’s business model was hit.

The Indiana reopening helped GiGis Health Bar get back up and running, but planners like Drakeford are eager to find more ways to provide ambassadors with work experience and increase their visibility in the community. This is how the idea for a mobile food company was born.

Drakeford credits King Arthur’s Food Trolley as “really helpful in designing our food bar.” Now these innovators and other GiGi are helping launch its Food Truck Friday , which Drakeford sees as a test run for the future of launching its own GiGi mobile food operation.

When considering starting a food truck business, Drakeford’s team pondered the type of food that would be best for making in a truck, as well as the cost of the truck and its style (whether truck, trailer, or shopping cart).

“We don’t want to close our health bar,” says Drakeford. Instead, she sees Food Truck Fridays as just another example of how GiGis is spinning during the pandemic to better serve the needs of its customers and the community.

GiGi ambassadors are invited to sign up every week to work on a food truck. A total of 25 ambassadors can currently work at the Health Bar, and many have also signed up for the new truck experience.

“We’ve had a good response so far,” says Drakeford.

Even so, she plans to make Food Truck Fridays small by contracting a maximum of two trucks a week. In the future, she says, GiGis would be happy if other food trucks join in and organize a larger event.

To find out more about Food Truck Fridays and which food trucks will be released each week, visit GiGi’s Facebook page.

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