STAMFORD – Fifty years ago, when she was a child, Renee Brown spent hours beside her mother in the kitchen.
She learned to cut things and stir things; mix ingredients with her hands; sprinkle in seasonings; crack an egg and get it into a bowl without any shell.
They were “the wonders of the kitchen,” Brown said, little acts that helped her learn the most wonderful thing of all – her mother’s food came from her soul, and was meant to feed the souls of others.
“She did things from love,” Brown said. “If somebody didn’t have a meal – or a place to stay, or money for the bus, or someone to talk to – she gave them that. She would say, ‘If somebody needs something, you have to give it to them.’ She was dedicated to people.”
Since her mother, Melba Louise Green, died in 2007, Brown said, a passion has been stewing.
Brown was already catering, serving the soul food and American classic recipes from her family’s North Carolina roots, but she wanted to take it to the streets of Stamford, where her mother drove a school bus, and then a CT Transit bus, for more than 25 years.
Brown wanted a food truck.
On Thursday she opened her service window to customers on Oak Street downtown.
The bright red truck features a photo of Melba Louise Green wearing one of her signature hats. Below her likeness are the words, “Continuing What Momma Started.” The name of the truck is “Lovely Louise.”
In honor of her mother, Brown said, she will offer free food to customers from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. every Wednesday.
“Of course I’m in business to make money, but I want to pick up where my mother left off,” Brown said. “She fed everybody. That’s why this is so dear to me.”
The “Lovely Louise” truck will be on Oak Street, which connects Summer and Bedford streets, from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Brown said the truck will be at the Elks Lodge, 33 Mission St., on Fridays and Saturdays.
She and her crew serve up soul and American foods that include breakfasts of chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, pancakes, and variations of egg and cheese sandwiches and omelets.
Lunch and dinner offerings include soul food bowls, chili dogs, burgers, chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese, turkey sliders, sweet potato pie, candied yams, and buffalo chicken rolls.
“My mother’s specialties were sweet potato pie and macaroni and cheese,” Brown said. “She loved those.”
Specials depend on the day, and include barbecue chicken, pork ribs, fried shrimp and succotash.
“My favorite is collard greens, because of the seasoning,” Brown said. “Everything has to be about the seasoning. Butter and salt. I don’t want to give away secrets, but you can use vinegar and garlic and black pepper, and cook the greens with pork bones.”
Dessert offerings include pound cake, banana pudding, and Momma Dori’s lemon cake, a recipe from Brown’s mother-in-law, Doris. Brown and her husband of 41 years, Eric, were Stamford High School sweethearts.
In launching “Lovely Louise,” Brown joins an growing number of entrepreneurs across the country.
Food trucks are one of the fastest-growing segments in food service, embraced by consumers as an alternative to traditional restaurants, according to GitNux, a website offering market data reports.
In many cities, restaurants also operate food trucks.
The U.S. food truck industry grew at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent between 2018 and today, according to the report, which counted 36,324 trucks on the nation’s roads this year.
Stamford ramped up regulations about seven years ago, when food trucks were growing in number and popularity, sometimes causing disputes by parking on residential streets or in front of restaurants, or operating well into the night.
According to the city’s website, truck operators now have to complete tax registration forms, register their trade name, obtain a vendor’s license and signage permit, and pass a city health department inspection before they can begin selling food. The health department conducts routine inspections every few months after that.
Brown said she is allowed to change spots if she first notifies the city, but for now will stick to Oak Street, where she once worked and where she thinks there is unmet demand.
Brown said she learned from her mother to be vigilant about need in all its forms.
“When my mother drove a school bus, if a kid got on and didn’t have lunch money, she’d give it to them. If she was taking us to Playland and there was a child in the neighborhood who didn’t get to go to Playland, my mother would take that child with us as if it was her own,” Brown said.
“When my mother drove a city bus, she would say, ‘You never know what a person is going through. It may not make sense to you, but one nice word from you may help that person,’” Brown said. “I knew her heart. I knew she would take her last dime and give it away.”
Food was a big part of what her mother gave, Brown said.
“I never cook when I’m angry because I know it’s not going to come out right. It will be burnt or not taste right in some way. You have to cook with love,” she said. “I do it knowing this is what my mother wanted.”