A group of people stand outside of a turquoise food truck
Owner Ashlee Kleinert, pictured in pink pants, leads the team at Ruthie’s.

Demondric Pratt prepares a secret sauce on a breezy mid-September day inside the cramped kitchen of Ruthie’s. The food truck is just one in a small fleet of aqua-and-pink colored vehicles that travel around Dallas serving gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. Like every Friday at lunchtime, Pratt is preparing to serve the kids at Wesley Prep Elementary. “I was very nervous,” he says, recounting his first day working in a kitchen when he was just 16 years old. “I had no idea what I was doing.”

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Pratt, who grew up in the Oak Cliff neighborhood in Dallas, is Ruthie’s catering manager and one of eight employees who got their start with the business as teenagers. Since 2019, Ruthie’s has served as a resource for youths who have been involved with the juvenile justice system. Founded by philanthropist Ashlee Kleinert in 2011, the grilled cheese enterprise works with Dallas-based nonprofit Café Momentum, which offers a yearlong paid internship program focused on mentorship and skill building.

Named after Kleinert’s grandmother, Ruth, Ruthie’s was one of Dallas’ first trendy food trucks. Over the years, Ruthie’s has expanded to four food trucks and can be found on numerous local “best grilled cheese” lists. An ode to the sandwiches Kleinert’s grandmother used to make, the food truck’s menu includes an array of delectably gooey meals. Options include the Boss, made with barbecue brisket; the OMG, which contains crispy bacon; and the pepperoni-based Sgt. Pepperlonely.

Dallasites might recognize Ruthie’s from its appearances across town. The food trucks can often be found downtown at Klyde Warren Park as part of Food Truck Lane or parked at the end zone during football games at SMU, Kleinert’s alma mater. “We’re the official grilled cheese truck of SMU, so we are at all the games,” Kleinert says.

At the start of 2023, Ruthie’s also acquired Dallas Doing Good, an online publication that shares inspiring stories from around the city. That idea of doing good runs through just about everything Ruthie’s does. After a few years in business, Kleinert set out to hone her mission. In 2019, she partnered with Café Momentum, a nonprofit created by Dallas-based chef Chad Houser. The organization aims to provide at-risk youths with the skills necessary to succeed in the restaurant industry and break the cycle of incarceration.

“We have really been influenced by the mission of Café Momentum,” Kleinert says. “We started seeing people daily that had overcome so many hurdles, and the odds are just stacked against them. It was really hard.”

With its flagship location in Dallas, Café Momentum also has programs in Nashville, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ruthie’s acts as an extension of that program, offering Café Momentum graduates a chance to apply for fellowships. Pratt first heard of the program when he was 15. As soon as he was eligible to work on his 16th birthday, he called Café Momentum and was hired that day.

The program requires mentees to work for 12 months, learning to cook, serve, and more at Café Momentum’s dine-in location in Downtown Dallas. Once Pratt finished the program, he took a job at a local hotel restaurant. “But some opportunities are not for everyone,” Pratt says.

Two hands pull apart toasty bread with long pulls of melted yellow cheese inside

Ruthie’s food truck in Dallas specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches.

Like many other kids who work with Houser, he wasn’t ready to leave his community at Café Momentum behind. He decided to leave the hotel and join the team at Ruthie’s. “They are there for me if I need help or someone to talk to,” he says. “I realized that this is definitely a family.” In October 2022, Pratt also launched Demondric and Mar’Twan Executive Catering, a catering company he started in partnership with fellow Café Momentum graduate Mar’Twan Darden.

Kaileigh Johnson, who worked as a case manager for Café Momentum for several years before she began working with Ruthie’s, is now the foundation’s chief program officer. Johnson still keeps in touch with many of the kids she worked with throughout the years. “The kids have to trust you in order for them to allow you to help them,” Johnson says.

Johnson has stayed with one of her Café Momentum clients in the hospital, picked another up in the middle of the night after he was kicked out of his home, and, on multiple occasions, left in the middle of a date to help one of her kids. “It’s not easy,” Johnson says. “Issues will arise that you don’t expect, and you can’t prepare anyone for it, but the joy you get from seeing the kids succeed outweighs all of that.”

After nearly a decade of serving the Dallas community, Ruthie’s is expected to open a brick-and-mortar location on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard this summer. The new development is in partnership with the St. Philips School and Community Center, a private school that serves moderate- and low-income elementary and middle school students.

“It’s been years in the process,” Kleinert says. “But here we are, almost four years later, and we’re breaking ground.”

Back in the kitchen, Pratt lifts the bowl and checks the thickness of the sauce before he pours it into the clear container for the food truck. You can try and ask him, but he won’t divulge any ingredients in the sauce—it’s a Ruthie’s family secret.

From the March 2023 issue
The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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