By Tony Hooker
Susan Hewing always knew she would work in the food industry.
That’s what often happens when you grow up in the restaurant your parents own.
What she didn’t know, perhaps, is that she would own her own restaurant in her early twenties. And she definitely didn’t know that her career would find her as the owner and operator of a thriving food truck for the past quarter of a century. I recently caught up with Hewing, the proprietor of the popular Ag Days staple, Fat Jacks, to find out how it all came about.
Where did you get the name “Fat Jack’s”?
I just made it up. It just came to me one day, and then I found the fat chef that’s on the menu and I thought “what could be a better place for a fat chef than Fat Jack’s?” <laughs>
How long have you been doing this?
This is my twenty-fourth year.
Where are you from?
I’m from Windsor, Illinois.
Do you still live in Windsor?
Yes, and then I just drive here every year.
How many festivals do you travel to every year?
We usually start out at the Illinois State High School Track meets in early May, and then we go all the way through Halloween as our last festival, so we go pretty much every weekend for five months.
Do you see vendors at multiple events every year?
Yeah, we see a lot of the same people several times a year. Some are friends, and some are not! <laughs>
Is this your full-time job?
It is. It used to not be. When I first started out, I did this and then when this grew so big, I had to quit my full-time job.
What drew you to this?
My parents owned a restaurant. I opened a restaurant when I was 21. I was general manager of a couple of restaurants, and I just got tired of working for everyone else. I thought “You know what, I can do this!” and I started it. The nice thing is you’re not stuck doing this all year round. You get to bounce around to different towns and meet different people. We’ve been doing this for 24 years, so we have friends in every town. In the wintertime when it’s zero degrees outside, this gets parked in a shop, and I’m done. <smiles>
How did you come up with your menu?
It helped that my parents owned a restaurant and then I did, also. To be honest with you, every time I’m in a restaurant or steak house or something I’m always checking out what they have. I do a little snooping on the food network and that’s pretty much where I come up with some of the weird stuff we have on our menu.
There are a couple of carnival shows on Food Network that always have unique stuff. They’re all about doing festivals with food trucks.
What would you say is your most popular item?
It’s really hard to say. We’ve got boom boom shrimp which is breaded shrimp with a boom boom sauce. Our funnel cakes and shake ups are always popular. We do loaded French fries and popcorn chicken. We have a breaded tenderloin. I think it all sells pretty well. We do a taco in a boat that does really well.
Does it vary from town to town?
It does! It varies so much. Whenever we do a show in Cumberland County, we can’t keep Taco in a Boat, but then we go somewhere else, and it hardly sells. Different towns have different things that they eat. It’s weird, but it’s also really cool!
How does Ag Days compare to other festivals?
Maybe it’s just because we’ve been coming here for so long, but this is one of our busiest stops, right up there with some fairs and festivals in much bigger towns.
How long do you think you’re going to keep doing this?
<smiles> Not more than a couple of years. It’s about time for me to pass the torch!
Do you have someone in mind?
I do. I’ve got a girl in mind who wants to get out of her current job and get into this. I’ll run with her a little bit to see if she really knows what she’s getting herself into! <laughs> She’s worked with me for a couple of years, so she kind of gets it. Yeah, I’m ready to relax a little bit.