The name might not give it away, but JimmyDawn’s is quickly becoming known for serving New Jersey’s best cheesesteaks. Debuting in 2016, its rapidly becoming one of the state’s most successful food trucks. Owner Jimmy, along with his wife Dawn, utilizes years of culinary experience to create cheesesteak masterpieces. Their top-notch talent and mouthwatering menu make JimmyDawn’s a prime candidate for our Best New Jersey Food Trucks series.
Several years ago, Jimmy Donelan proposed the idea of starting a food truck business to his then-girlfriend Dawn. It wasn’t long before the couple began dipping their toes into New Jersey’s cosmopolitan world of food trucking. Hard work and dedication soon paid off, and now the duo is lighting up events all over the Garden State.
The Cheese to Please
JimmyDawn’s specializes in making a collection of flavorful styles of cheesesteaks, all with their signature JimmyDawn’s cheese sauce. The process is time-consuming, but certainly well-worth the devotion.
“There are days of prep before doing an event,” Dawn told Best of NJ. “Six hours of cheese sauce cooking, and hundreds of pounds of onion-chopping. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
The couple began their adventure with a custom-made trailer at the end of the 2016 season. They did mostly side-of-the-road lunches and a few events. 2017 was the brand’s first full year in the business, and a wildly successful one at that. The start of the 2018 season saw the completion of JimmyDawn’s first, massive truck. The truck includes many new features, and is the perfect environment for now-seasoned food truckers like the Donelans.
A Simple Mantra
Jimmy has years of restaurant experience under his belt, and is the “certified” chef at home. He regularly makes dinner for his wife and daughters, using a career’s worth of extensive culinary knowledge. After developing his own cooking style, most of his dishes are now unbeatable.
“He has a theory that the best food is simple food,” Dawn says. “And if you don’t try to overkill something, you’re always going to hit it right.”
JimmyDawn’s cheesesteaks follow this same philosophy. They pile beef and onions onto freshly baked bread, then drench it all in hot and steamy white cheese sauce. They can also add some bacon, or perhaps a pile of mac and cheese to your sandwich. Regardless, a JimmyDawn’s cheesesteak surpasses all else.
It’s particularly worth noting that JimmyDawn’s keeps their food truck impressively spotless. Despite the number of events they attend, the Donelans ensure the vehicle is clean enough to eat off of.
“We are obsessively and compulsively clean,” Dawn admits. “I would not feed anyone anything that I wouldn’t feed my own kids.”
The Best New Jersey Food Trucks: JimmyDawn’s Interview
Best of NJ: Where are you from, and what did you do before JimmyDawn’s?
Dawn: I am originally from Brooklyn. Then the natural progression—my family migrated me to Staten Island. I have two daughters. Jim was born and raised in New Jersey, and he also has two daughters. We met about seven years ago, and we started dating and really hit it off; we got married earlier this year, and we combined families.
I worked in social services my whole life. First, I was in the field of alcohol and substance abuse; and for the past decade I was in the field of the developmentally disabled. During our first food truck season, Jim and I both worked full-time jobs while doing this. So it was 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we were working.
The business was so good to us the first season, and we developed a nice following; we knew one of us had to give this our full attention. So I was the recipient of that lucky break [laughs]. I left my job a couple months ago, after 10 years. I have devoted myself to this full-time, and so we’ve been able to take on corporate lunches; because now I’m home during the day, so I can work the truck with my sister-in-law. We also do catering. And Jim does weekends with us, or evenings he’ll work with us after work.
BONJ: How did you get started with the food truck?
Dawn: It was Jim’s idea. One day he said to me, “Dawn, what do you think about opening a food truck?” I said, “Are you out of your mind?” I hate to cook, but he cooks, and he cooks so well. One day he made me a cheesesteak, and we were joking, and I said to him, “You have to sell these. This is delicious.” And that’s kind of what happened.
I don’t know the first thing about running a business. And he said to me, “The reality of it is that in my lifetime, most of my bosses—the people at the top who run things—the only difference between them and us is that they weren’t afraid to take a chance.” And somehow when he said that to me, I thought, you’re right; if we don’t try, we’ll never know.
BONJ: Do you remember your first event?
Dawn: Our first event was the Rotary Club in Jersey City at the end of 2016. It was a huge event. We weren’t just a cheesesteak truck back then; we had something else on the truck called the “Original Panzerotti.” They’re from South Jersey. They’re like these pockets filled with sauce and cheese, and you deep fry them. What we used to do was make all these homemade gourmet fillings. We’d make meatballs, spicy shrimp, all these different fillings.
BONJ: What was the business like when you first started up?
Dawn: We started on the side of the road with our trailer. We went out to Georgia and had a trailer built; we’d tow the trailer, and that’s how we were working. So we were just doing side-of-the-road work when we first began. We didn’t know how to get into festivals. Little by little, people started contacting us, and I would spend hours after work trying to get us into places.
We used to do fat sandwiches, poppers, and this and that. Our menu used to be a lunch menu, because on the side of the road, you can’t just have cheesesteaks. But then we started to become so familiar with how to get into all of these events.
BONJ: What sets your cheesesteaks apart from the rest?
Dawn: Well, first, everything is freshly made. Nothing is laying in a warmer or anything like that. Our bread is baked fresh and delivered to us from Brooklyn every day. We don’t use Steak-umm, and all of our vegetables and toppings are fresh. And we make homemade cheese sauce—a white cheese sauce. So no whiz on our truck. And I can’t tell you what’s in our cheese sauce, because it’s a secret [laughs].
BONJ: What’s your most popular cheesesteak?
Dawn: Probably the Garlic Bread Killer Cheesesteak.
BONJ: Tell us about the new truck.
Dawn: The truck was built by New Jersey Food Trucks. We have a bigger grill now; two freezers and two refrigerators. We have two double fryers. We have a lot more storage capacity. That was the trouble with the trailer; although it was a big trailer, we could only hold so much food. We also had a TV installed on the side, and it works great for advertising and catering. Now when we cater, if the customer wants us to run a special video or photos, we can do that. And we also can advertise other businesses on there.
There other thing that’s great is say you’re doing an event during the World Series of baseball, for example. We, then, can play the game on our truck, and everybody wants to come and watch the game. Plus, we love music, and we can play music now. The truck also has lights, so we can be lit up.
BONJ: Tell us a little bit more about your catering.
Dawn: We have a fully equipped kitchen. So people tend to want us to do our cheesesteak and fries, because that is what we are known for; however, people also ask us to do things like a backyard barbecue. We can make anything. For example, Jim makes the best crab cakes ever. He makes phenomenal lobster rolls, too. So we can cater anything. We can meet the needs of whatever someone is looking for.
BONJ: What can we expect from JimmyDawn’s in the near future?
Dawn: Well, we have definitely progressed with events. We do a ton now. Also, this is truck number one. We’re looking to have truck number two, and possibly even truck number three, in the near future. One day we hope to open up a little brick and mortar place.
This is the start of something big, and we are excited. It’s a family business. Our children pitch in. They work with us sometimes. My sister-in-law and I do the lunches together. My brother-in-law works with us sometimes. So it’s all family.
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All Photos: © Patrick Lombardi / Best of NJ