Nina Santucci has a passion for paella. But not just any paella. While she enjoys the dish, it was a certain paella made with shell fish and four different broths that her boyfriend Tony Maiale made after a long shift at the Philadelphia restaurant where the two worked as manager and head chef, that brings back the fondest of foodie memories.
“I will never forget that,” she said. “I literally for months dreamt about it.”
The way Santucci talks about that meal makes it clear that she and food have a special relationship. That relationship reached a whole new level this summer when Santucci, along with Maiale, founded and opened the Purple Carrot food truck.
Reaching heights of popularity the couple never imaged, the Purple Carrot serves all locally-grown food, often with a unique twist. The popularity of the food truck gave Santucci and Maiale the reassurance that the Lansing area was more than ready for what they had to offer, and in turn they plan to open a brick and mortar restaurant in early spring.
Opening a restaurant is definitely a culmination of a long-standing dream, one that began, whether Santucci knew it or not, when she moved away to Philadelphia to attend Villanova University and majored in communications and business.
Growing up in East Lansing with older sister Torye and her mom and dad Debbie and Marc, Santucci was always exposed to a variety of foods thanks to her entrepreneur father’s investment in Michigan-based food companies, including a cherry farm in Traverse City.
“I’ve always loved food and cooking,” said Santucci. “I’ve always felt comfortable in a kitchen.” Still, she said it wasn’t until she took a waitressing job at a high-end restaurant in Philly, that her foodie palate was truly developed.
While waiting tables, Santucci also developed a relationship with head chef, Maiale.
On a whim the couple decided in 2006 to make a move to Austin, Texas. Within two weeks they had left their jobs, found a place in Austin and Tony was working as a chef at another high-end restaurant. Santucci, however, decided to leave the food industry and took a job with a technology company. “That was as bad as a job as you could imagine,” she said.
Realizing that food and hospitality were her true passions, Santucci worked with a local wedding planner on the side and when her aunt, also a foodie, passed away and her uncle needed someone to travel to Washington D.C. and prepare a gourmet meal for around 200 guests, Santucci and Maiale volunteered.
“It was absolutely insane,” said Santucci. To thank the couple, Santucci’s uncle, who didn’t often stay at his home, offered up his D.C. town house and a move to the Capitol.
So once again the couple uprooted and headed to D.C. Although they missed Austin — “It’s an amazing place,” said Santucci — Maiale had landed a head chef position at one of the most well-known and highly regarded restaurants in the country.
Santucci and Maiale had been living in D.C. for a year when an old friend from Philadelphia called them up, explained that he had just bought a restaurant and wanted them to come back. Santucci would take on the role of manager and Maiale would serve as head chef.
The year was 2009 and again the opportunity was just too good pass up, so they made the move.
Although Santucci absolutely loved what was happening in Philly, she and Maiale couldn’t ignore the feeling that they were ready to open their own restaurant.
With the desire to serve all locally-grown food, they looked back to Santucci’s home state thanks to the variety of goods available in the climate here.
They were looking at places in the Lansing area and the Traverse City area, when one night while watching the Food Network they stumbled upon “The Great Food Truck Race,” and decided that would be an innovative (not to mention less risky) way to enter the market.
“We were a little bit worried about how people would receive the food,” she said.
Santucci mentioned the idea in passing to her father and within a few days he had purchased a food truck he found for sale online.
That was that, the couple broke the bad news to the restaurant owner in Philly and moved back to the Lansing area. “We’re gonna plant our feet for once,” she said with a laugh.
Santucci and Maiale relocated last winter and began working on their plan for the Purple Carrot (which by the way is a real food. They chose the name because it’s unique, just like them).
They began working with local farmers to gather ingredients for an opening in early May.
What happened next was unexpected. The Purple Carrot became the place to go for lunch in the Lansing area. “Everything happened so quickly,” said Santucci. “Once the word got out … it was cooking as much food as we possibly could.”
The fast success meant media exposure, including being part of the Food Network’s “Great Food Truck Race.”
The couple spent every spare second finding food (their original suppliers had a hard time keeping up), planning menus and of course, cooking. “The amount of legal pads we go through is ridiculous,” said Santucci. “There’s a lot of organization.”
The Purple Carrot did five services a week serving 100 to 150 people … and that was just during the hour and a half lunch. It was insanely busy, but the customers made it all worth it.
“(We have) the most appreciative customers,” she said. “The customers here have been so open, so warm to us … Part of the allure of serving food is making people happy.”
Any fear that Lansing customers weren’t ready for what Santucci and Maiale were offering were soon dashed. To keep their offerings all local, they did a lot of experimenting and it worked.
“We (didn’t) want to compromise what we were doing,” said Santucci. “No matter what we put on the menu, people bought it … It’s just really exciting for us.”
Along with making customers happy Santucci and Maiale had to keep each other happy. “This year definitely tested us to an extent,” she said. “We had no space … (but) we both think so much of each other … I would not take anyone else as my partner.”
It’s that strong partnership and customer base that Santucci and Maiale hope will make their restaurant just as successful as their food truck. “People know who we are,” she said. “People trust us.”
If you consider being a foodie or being served by a foodie intimidating, don’t. Santucci said just like anyone else she makes an occasional fast food run and besides the dreamy paella she had a few years back, peanut butter is one of her all-time favorite foods.
Still, Santucci said it doesn’t take much to change someone’s mind about just how magical food can be.
“All you need is to have that one meal where your mind gets changed,” she said. “It’s one of those few things that can take over your senses … It isn’t about what you know and what you don’t know … have an open mind.”
Santucci is certainly taking her own advice. Along with attempting to get a taste for olives (a food she’s never been too fond of) she is keeping her mind open to business opportunities as they arise.
This winter the Purple Carrot did a number of catering jobs — all landed by word of mouth. Once the truck reopens in March and then the restaurant in early spring, who knows what’s next.
One thing is for sure for Santucci. “I’m so happy,”
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