It's a crisp autumn day, and a line of gleaming food trucks borders Greer Stadium's back parking lot. Some issue fragrant plumes of smoke from their rooftop vents, their mouthwatering aromas wafting over the pavement — airborne enticements to a sold-out crowd of mobile food enthusiasts. Tucked in the far corner of Nashville's inaugural Battle of the Food Trucks, near the beer van, sits a relatively diminutive cart, painted a cheery blue and sporting an umbrella, staffed by three very dressed-up women in lipstick and vintage-style aprons. Open for business just a few weeks, Sugar Wagon is putting its desserts up against more familiar names — and doing quite well.
One of the items they've laid out to sample is an exquisite peanut butter ganache cup. It's so impossibly rich and creamy that it prompts one judge to drop his golden fork in their vote-collections box. And the crowd goes wild for them, too, voting Sugar Wagon runner-up in the sweets division. (First place goes to the more established — and yes, more vehicularly endowed — Cupcake Collection.)
Fast-forward about a month and Sugar Wagon co-owners Tracy Ardoin-Jenkins and Jane Nickell are hanging out before-hours at Flyte, the innovative eatery on Eighth Avenue where they first met and, about a year ago, hatched the idea to go mobile with a smart, contemporary take on classic American desserts. (Both still work at Flyte, Nickell as hostess and Ardoin-Jenkins as bartender.) The original plan was to go the hood-full-of-horsepower route and outfit a full-size baking truck. But when the financing didn't work out, the duo decided they had a choice: Scrap the whole project or, as Nickell puts it, "shrink the idea, start small [and] show the idea has value." They chose the latter, and so far, the value is apparent — even if the Sugar Wagon, which is about the size of a double-wide podium, looks a bit small when parked alongside "mobile slabs" blasting rock music, cupcake-dispensing converted school buses and the like.
In a way, Ardoin-Jenkins says, starting small has been its own silver lining, allowing them to get the lay of the land and proceed at their own pace: "However we grow will be the correct way to grow," she says. It remains to be seen whether the business grows to the point where they eventually can get the big truck they wanted at first, or open a shop. In the meantime, their business is definitely growing.
Flyte, which turned five earlier this month, serves as the Sugar Wagon's commissary, de facto headquarters and font of inspiration. "We can't praise our mentors enough," Nickell says of owners Scott Atkinson and Scott Sears. "They've let us use their kitchen gear, and even allowed us to look at their business plan."
Nickell, the self-described owner of a "marketing and branding brain," studied business at Belmont, and decided it was time to chart an entrepreneurial course for herself after returning to Nashville from a year in Australia and enduring a particularly disheartening job interview. Ardoin-Jenkins, the dough-wrangling and ice-cream-cranking half of the partnership, perfected her craft at The French Pastry School in Chicago. She found it difficult to break into the Windy City's hypercompetitive market after graduating, and decided to move back South. (She's originally from Georgia.)
"I'm a creative person," Ardoin-Jenkins says. "I need someone to be like, 'This is your assignment.' " In Nickell, Ardoin-Jenkins found the taskmaster she needed to channel her considerable skill, someone with local connections and marketing acumen to help her concept — drawn up over months of informal meetings — materialize.
"We get along well," Nickell says. "We may be different, but we have complementary skill sets." One taste of a Sugar Wagon ice cream sandwich — the decadent amalgam of chocolate chip cookie and salted caramel ice cream has become a fast favorite among customers — confirms the truth of that assessment.
The flavors speak for themselves, but it's worth noting Sugar Wagon's commitment to quality, including all non-GMO ingredients and hormone-free dairy. And that knee-buckling peanut butter ganache cup that vaulted them to second place at the Battle of the Food Trucks? It's vegan. So is the delectable chocolate chip cookie that has people already preordering Christmas boxes. Some of their handmade ice creams are vegan, too, made with coconut milk. But think of it as stealth vegan — you'd never know unless someone told you. (Vegan items are marked as such on the Sugar Wagon menu.)
If "vegan" has less-than-pleasant connotations for you, don't let that oft-politicized word trip you up (though it shouldn't anyway). These are classic flavors that happen to be made without animal products, not anti-establishment baked goods. As Ardoin-Jenkins puts it: "I don't want flax in my cookies."
Be that as it may, Ardoin-Jenkins has a wonderful touch with the ingredients that do make it into her confections. A seasonally appropriate sandwich of gingersnap cookie and pumpkin ice cream is but one further example. Sugar Wagon may look like little more than a dressed-up handcart at the moment, but as anyone with a sweet tooth in their jaw will tell you, good things often come in small packages. And if they continue to live up to the high standards they've established, don't expect Sugar Wagon to stay small for long.