When it comes to dreaming big and starting your own business, the road to success is never without a few bumps along the way, and these temporary roadblocks come in many forms. It might mean that — only hours before your new restaurant is set to open — you’re scurrying around in the attic of the space, trying to figure out why a fuse suddenly blew. It could be that a shipment of English cucumbers didn’t arrive on time, throwing your menu completely out of whack for the next week. And if you’re Gregoire Tillery, founder of We Dat’s “New Orleans Owned” Chicken & Shrimp, your first obstacle to culinary success means being stranded on the side of the interstate with a flat tire and blown-off hood vent from your recently purchased food truck — and an inspector’s visit is scheduled for later in the day. Yikes.
But first, let’s back up a little bit.
While working a corporate job in Alabama, New Orleans native Tillery became inspired to start his own food truck after catching an episode of The Great Food Truck Race. The entrepreneurial spirit quickly took hold. “This was about five or six years ago, when everybody was talking about food trucks, food trucks, food trucks,” says Tillery. “I was like, ‘Man, this is something that I can do.’ Long story short, I wound up getting a transfer back down to New Orleans, and when that happened, in my mind, I was like, ‘I want to start this business. I want to invest in a food truck. This is something cool that I know I can make successful.’”
While still working his full-time job, Tillery started making plans and researching everything he could about the ins and outs of food trucks. “I never had a lick of culinary school, never knew anything about food trucks. So I went to YouTube, and would sit there and watch documentary, after documentary, after documentary about food trucks,” he laughs. “But what’s so funny is that even though you can watch videos on stuff, you still don’t really know until you know, because YouTube makes it look so easy.”
Tillery eventually found a food truck that looked promising for sale in Athens, Alabama, and recruited one of his best friends to make the six-hour drive with him to pick it up. If all went according to plan, food truck glory would now simply mean bringing it back down to New Orleans and starting to hustle in earnest for his meals-on-wheels dream. But not so fast. “When I got on the truck, I immediately thought, ‘This is perfect!’ I paid the guy — I’ll never forget, his name was Mr. Ronnie — and then I noticed that the truck was a stick [shift]. I’d never driven a stick a day in my life. So, that was the first problem.”
Fortunately, his friend had experience driving a manual transmission, and the two set off down the interstate, hoping to make the meeting with a health inspector to review the truck later in the day. “So, I got the truck. I’m feeling great; I’m on a high; and we start driving it down. I’m following behind my friend [in a car] and he’s driving the truck when, suddenly, the hood vent on top of the truck — the mushroom — actually falls off as we’re on the interstate and hits the car that I’m driving! I’m starting to sweat even thinking about it. I’m like, ‘Oh my Lord, what did I do buying this thing?’”
After an equally panic-inducing experience filling up at a gas station — where Tillery learned that the cost of a full tank rang up to a whopping $300 — the two found themselves in the homestretch, 93 miles outside of New Orleans. But once again, Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” — took hold. “We’re almost there, and I start seeing the food truck going side to side, wobbling, and the truck catches a flat tire! My best friend is panicking. He’s like, ‘Man, what do you have me driving? Look at these tires! They’re old and bald!’ At that point I was really like, ‘What did I get myself into?’”
Faced with an increasingly tough situation, Tillery did what any good Louisiana son does when he’s in trouble: He called his mama.
“We’re there on the side of the interstate with this flat tire, and at this point, I immediately pick up the phone and call my mom. And I’m telling her, ‘Mom, what did I do? I am so lost right now. I didn’t spend all this money for this food truck to be coming apart. What am I going to do?’ And I’ll never forget my mom telling me, ‘Relax. Say your prayers. Everything is going to be okay. It’s all going to work itself out.’”
And work itself out, it did. There were still plenty more trials and tribulations along the way — from expensive upgrades, to electrical failures, to blown generators — but a few months later, at Essence Fest 2013, things were starting to turn around for We Dat’s and their soon-to-be legendary wings, catfish and shrimp.
“I’ll never forget it — I remember it like it was yesterday. People [after Essence] were pulling up to the truck constantly, and I was out from 10 p.m. until four in the morning. People are hungry; they’ve been out partying; they need food. I was like, ‘Wow, this is what’s up! This is fun!’ Not only is it work, but I was getting to interact with people. And being able to really serve people for the first time and see their expressions when they say things like, ‘Man, this is the best thing I’ve ever tasted!’ It was a huge confidence boost, because they all didn’t know that I was just starting the truck — that I was brand new.”
Since that fateful night, We Dat’s has expanded exponentially: from a food truck popping up at bars and events around town, to a full-time food truck, to a couple of always packed brick-and-mortar stores — with more on the way.
“In 2015, I took everything I had saved up on the food truck and invested it in the Canal Street location. It has turned into our flagship, and a staple in the city,” says Tillery, pointing out that We Dat’s has become a hot spot for celebrities and sports stars. “[Saints player] Alvin Kamara comes in, and he gets the Wuzzam Wings [a signature menu item] and ranch fries. We’ve had Dee-1 and Choppa, and have catered for everyone from Snoop Dogg, to Wyclef Jean, to Laurence Fishburne. Anthony Davis has been supporting us since our food truck days, and even has a menu item named after him: The Brow. It’s our famous two-piece catfish, shrimp and fries.”
But Tillery and Davis’ connection runs even deeper than just a menu special. Always looking for ways to grow, Greg and the former Pelican’s personal chef, William Jones, worked together to create a line of We Dat’s seasoning that’s taken the city — and shelves at Rouses — by storm.
“Chris [Acosta, third-generation Rouse family member] actually took a chance on me and our seasoning line. I told him what it is that I was going to bring to the table with social media, and that I was going to do everything I possibly could to bring exposure, because I get close to a million or two impressions a week. I said, ‘Look, I’m going to use my influence to help you guys as you are helping us.’ Because, Rouses is all about supporting local. That’s the backbone of their business — helping local small businesses get a footprint in their stores. That’s exactly what they did for me. I’m forever grateful.”
Today, We Dat’s has their Original seasoning and Garlic Parmesan seasoning in Rouses stores, with a sweet heat seasoning, crawfish boil and bottles of their über-popular Wuzzam Wing sauce currently in production.
“People use the seasoning in everything from crawfish boils, to putting it in their red beans and rice, to their chicken, to steak, to fish. You can put this seasoning literally on everything. I have people that use the seasoning on their eggs. People use it on their grits. The seasoning is amazing.”
And whether you’re hustling alongside your best friend to drive a rickety food truck down the highway, or partnering with other local businesses to boost your shine, the We Dat’s team knows that life is better when you work together. “We just get so much love and support from the city, and now the relationship with Rouses — I thank God for it. We’re really starting to build some momentum,” says Tillery with a smile.