Shonell and Deanna Johnson met on the job while working for a catering company in 1997. After they married and had three daughters, the Johnsons became a family of foodies.
First, they started cooking for family gatherings, advanced to block club events and then took on summer festivals, where their trademark haddock fish fries caused a buzz that grew.
They bought a Chevrolet step van on Craigslist two years ago. After painting it fire red, orange and yellow, the Johnsons – Shonell, 44; Deanna, 38; Ariana, 17; Imari, 16; and Amaya, 14 – were ready to roll. Their Flaming Fish food truck is a regular from 5 to 8 p.m. at Food Truck Tuesdays at Larkinville and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Food Truck Thursdays in Niagara Square. From 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays, you’ll find it parked behind City Hall, where Mayor Byron W. Brown regularly orders a chicken hoagie.
People Talk: Who is the better cook?
Deanna Johnson: That’s definitely up for debate. Are you trying to get us in trouble with each other? You know, we both have our strengths and weaknesses. He’s really great coming up with different sauces. He’s the sauce master. Me? I do the tweaking and the prepping.
PT: Shonell, who is your inspiration?
Shonell Johnson: Probably my grandfather.
PT: How did you make the leap from catering to food trucks?
Deanna: The catering company showed us the ropes – setups, displaying. And people kept telling us we needed to start our own business. We were both much, much younger.
Shonell: It’s a lot of hard work. We first started with family gatherings. We used to do that a lot, and everybody would meet up at our house. We branched out to block club parties and then festivals in the city. We got into fish because I stopped eating meat.
Deanna: He’s a pescatarian, and one of our daughters is a vegetarian.
Shonell: She was trying to be a vegan for a while.
PT: How did the name Flaming Fish come about? Deanna: After our first summer of festivals, the city said we had to have a name. Our 14-year-old came up with it. People were surprised we could keep up, how fast we could get the fish fries out. People were really loving it, and our daughter said, “Man, we were like smokin’ hot. We should call it Flaming Fish.” And we did.
Shonell: Right away, we started renting fryers.
PT: Who drives?
Deanna: He’s the designated driver. I book everything, and I tell him where we have to go basically. Once we get there, there’s a whole other process: Get the truck on, start the propane. That’s key.
PT: Do you remember your first sale?
Deanna: The very first day we went out, we just picked a pop-up location, somewhere random in the Bailey-Kensington area, opened the window and finally, a gentleman ordered a couple of our fish fries.
Shonell: We were there for a while, maybe 40 minutes.
PT: Where do you get your fish?
Deanna: Willowbrook Farms, Hayes Fish. We go through between 300 to 500 pounds each week. But we serve more than fish. Grilled chicken pesto was our special for the last two weeks. People really like the Bermuda Triangle, a trio of shrimp tacos using jerk shrimp with pineapple salsa and pina colada sauce, grilled shrimp and chicken andouille sausage and crispy fried shrimp.
PT: How have you been received?
Deanna: As popular as food trucks are, there are still some people who aren’t familiar with them. A lot of people are wary of eating food from them.
Shonell: Especially seafood.
Story topics: food trucks