Past Portage, Stevens Point, Wausau and Tomahawk, among the tall trees in Wisconsin’s northwoods, you’ll find Saint Germain. The small town is home to the National Snowmobile Hall of Fame and surrounded by vacation cabins and dozens of small lakes. This picturesque spot is also the unlikely setting for one of the preeminent food cart builders in the country.
“When we started, we didn’t know a thing about the food cart industry,” says Josh Romaker, owner of Caged Crow Fabrication. “This business just kind of fell into my lap. I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I want to start a food truck [making] business.’ I built one and the phone just kept ringing.”
On any given day, carts made by Caged Crow dot Madison’s downtown. El Grito, Good Food, the Pickle Jar, Buzzy’s Lake House, Ugly Apple, Mi, O.S.S. Madison, Greek Street and the new food cart Metropolitan were built from the frame up by the small crew at Caged Crow.
The family-run company has made food carts large and small, for clients as far afield as Utah and New Jersey.
“Especially in bigger cities, there are usually a row of food carts in one place. My customers are looking for a way to stand out in the crowd,” says Romaker. “I always tell them, ‘What brings people in is the cart. What brings them back is the food.’”
Left to right: Josh Romaker, Jeremiah Hughes and Chelsea Romaker are the heart of Caged Crow.
Romaker prides himself on never making the same cart twice. He doesn’t believe in slapping brightly colored decal wraps on a rectangular box with wheels. Instead, Romaker uses aluminum, chrome and wood to create one-of-a-kind carts that often have a vintage or rustic look. Handcrafted details like the waggish apple sculpture atop the Ugly Apple cart show off Romaker’s flair for metal art.
It takes six to eight weeks for Caged Crow to design and build a standard-size food cart. Prices range from $20,000 for a small food cart to more than $100,000 for a larger food truck. So far, the company has built and designed 22 custom carts. And Romaker has orders lined up through early 2018.
Caged Crow contracts out installation of electric and gas lines to ensure everything is up to code. But all other work is done by four people, three of whom are Romakers. Josh and his “right-hand man,” Jeremiah Hughes, do much of the fabrication. Josh’s wife, Chelsea, runs the business side — accounting, marketing and some sales. Josh’s brother Ryan, described as the shop’s “muscle,” also helps part-time. Romaker intends to keep the company a small, family affair. Their motto is “quality over quantity.”
“Our competitors can crank out 100 carts a year. But it’s the exact same cart just with a different graphic wrap on it. I call those guys cake decorators,” Romaker says. “We’re one of only a couple places that do this kind of super-customized work.”
Romaker is a blacksmith and welder by trade. He learned metal machining, woodworking and other construction skills working on farms in Blanchardville, WIsconsin, as a teenager. In 2013, he started Caged Crow Fabrication as a welding shop in Fitchburg. The company did custom metal fabrication and welding repair. Romaker had built some utility trailers, but food carts weren’t even on his radar.
Then he got a call from Melanie Nelson, owner of Good Food. Nelson had just one food cart at the time, and her trailer was rusting out on the bottom. The damage was beyond repair, so Nelson asked Romaker to build a brand-new cart, then a second one.
“Josh didn’t find food carts. They found him,” says Chelsea Romaker.
In late 2014, the Romakers and their two young kids decided to retreat to northern Wisconsin. Josh had family in the Saint Germain area and wanted his kids to grow up “someplace quiet.” The community was in need of someone who could do ironwork like gates and fences. But after relocating, with the food cart industry booming nationwide, the cart business took off, and blacksmith work was put on the back burner.
“We’re getting four or five inquiries a day now,” he says. “I’m thankful because we can now pick and choose which jobs we want.”
The transformation of a 1981 school bus, near left, into a fine dining truck, is their next project.
Romaker’s skills are also on display inside his carts, as he is tasked with cramming burners, sinks, counters, refrigeration and more into a space not much bigger than a walk-in closet.
Moving forward, Romaker is hoping to take on bigger, specialty jobs. He’s in the process of converting a 1981 International Harvester “Schoolmaster” bus into a food truck with a full commercial kitchen inside as well as an intimate chef’s table for private events. The “International Fine Dining Food Truck,” being developed by Melted food cart owner David Rodriguez of Madison, is Caged Crow’s largest project to date.
The bus is being redone from the wheels up, inside and out. They’ve already replaced most of the floor with aluminum diamond plate and have prepped the dining area for a hardwood floor. A large concession window has been cut out of the side of the bus, as has a 10-foot-hole in the ceiling for a range hood. Caged Crow is turning the bus into a small restaurant.
Romaker likes working on this “huge canvas” because it allows for maximum creativity. He hopes the International will land him future projects that are as equally complex.
“If someone wants a pirate ship with a kitchen in it,” Romaker says, “we’ll build it.”