For most of her adult life, Missy Carter did what was expected.
She went to college and got “big girl jobs” in private security and real estate.
In the back of her mind, Carter knew she wanted something more.
She didn’t realize what that was until 2010, when her mother died.
Growing up in rural Scott County, Carter, now 45, would often sit on the kitchen floor while her mom, who owned 3,000 cookbooks and was named Scott County Lard Queen in 1979, made dinner. She would ask questions and make mental notes about each step.
“My whole life, I watched her cook,” Carter said. “When she died, it gave me perspective on how short life is. I thought I should probably do what I wanted to do rather than what I thought was supposed to do.”
As it turns out, she wanted to open a food truck offering tastes learned from her mom.
“We were always reading cooking magazines and watching cooking shows,” she said. “I’m not classically trained, but as far as comfort food goes, I learned from the best there is.”
Last year, as the food truck movement picked up in the Quad-Cities, Carter decided it was time.
“I was watching other people do it,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why not me?’”
In October, she traveled to Alabama — to avoid “crazy high” prices in Chicago where food trucks go for $10,000 to $60,000 — and bought a 1986 Chevy truck with more than 400,000 miles on it. She officially opened Nombo’s Grub Truck on March 4 and has been steadily serving comfort foods — including a variety of macaroni and cheese dishes, tacos, tamales and desserts such as strawberry shortbread donuts — since.
“Now it’s my full-time job,” Carter, who has six children and three grandchildren, said. “Sometimes I’m more tired that I’ve ever been in my life, but I get to say I do what I love. No matter what happens, I can say I tried.”
Carter picked a good time to go after her dream.
Nombo’s joined the area’s on-wheels food scene about the same time Davenport’s food truck ordinance passed, a step other vendors had wanted for years.
Things are certainly more organized this season than ever, according to Chad Cushman, aka The Crepe Guy, who put together the Quad-City Independent Food Truck Alliance, which has 8-10 members.
Food Truck Tuesdays and Thursdays are becoming routine at Bechtel Park in Davenport, one of the zones the city approved for food vendors and more and more festivals and events, including the Freight House Farmers Market, are inviting food trucks to participate, Cushman said.
“We’ve come a long way and we’ve grown,” he said. “We’ve been flooded with phone calls and emails about getting food trucks at different events, so it proves people know we’re out there.”
Cushman said he and city officials have received some backlash about the rules and costs associated with the ordinance. Vendors who want to operate on the street must pay $550 for an annual permit on top of a $55 business license. To operate on private property, the property owner is required to fill out a special occurrence permit and pay a $100 fee.
“I think it’s very fair,” Cushman said. “Everything comes at a price. That’s a lot less than what you’d pay as a brick and mortar store.”
Carter says being part of the alliance, or “brotherhood” as Cushman calls it, has helped her fight the food truck “learning curve.”
“It’s all so new, so we all have questions,” she said. “It helps when we’re all working out the kinks together and learning this as we go. We lift each other up and cover for each other.”
Food that's not the norm
Cushman said more food trucks will likely “pop up out of the woodwork.”
For example, Michelle Allers recently closed her Eldridge ice cream shop, called Smilee’s, and replaced it with a food truck version.
“A lot of people are interested and intrigued by the food trucks; it’s a big fad right now,” Michelle Allers, the shop’s owner, said. “It gives you the opportunity to be out there and go to different events.”
“I think the food trucks are going to set the new food bar here,” Cushman, who hopes to open his own food truck in June, said. “That’s where you’re going to find the eclectic food and something new that’s not the norm.”
That seems to be the case for Nombo’s.
The California-style food truck has an open top with a screened skylight and a TV on the side, where customers can watch a ball game or retro movies while waiting.
Nombo's“whimsical” exterior matches its rotating menu of comfort food, which she prepares inside the truck.
“It comes to me day to day,” she said. “I make what I’m used to making and what I like. It’s ever-evolving.”
On a recent day, she exclusively served different types of macaroni and cheese. Some were infused with pepperonis, others with barbecue or bacon or pepper jack cheese.
“Comfort food is an art that has been lost and keeping that alive has been my goal,” she said. “I want it to be a treat and something you wouldn’t necessarily make at home.”
So far, she’s received plenty of positive reviews. But some comments mean more than others.
"People tell me it's like their mom used to make and that just makes me feel good," Carter said. “I think my mom would’ve thought it was crazy at first. I know in my heart she would be just as happy as I am."