Oklahoma City's Food Truck for Everyone

La Gumbo Ya Ya

Have your kids ever inspired you to do a good deed? That’s exactly what put Willy Fontanez on the giving-back track a few years ago and he hasn’t stopped since. It was Thanksgiving several years ago when Willy's young daughter asked him if everyone gets to eat turkey on the special day. The Army veteran and youth pastor was prompted by the question to deliver a few plates of food to the homeless, but he didn’t stop there.

Today, Willy runs La Gumbo Ya Ya, a popular Oklahoma City food truck peddling Puerto Rican fare all over town. Folks flock to the truck, which hits the street almost daily, for the food Willy learned to cook as a Puerto Rican native who grew up in Louisiana. In many ways, the truck is just like dozens of others in the metro area, but his business model sets him apart. Willy feeds every hungry person who approaches his truck, whether they can pay for the meal or not.

He manages to make a living through the business by practicing what he calls “suspended meals." Diners place their food order and when it comes time to pay, they can choose to tack on an extra $5 to purchase a suspended meal for a diner who can’t afford to eat. 

“The $5 helps us to never second-guess giving out a meal to someone,” he said. “It helps us support our family and get food in our mouths but we never have to worry if another guest can’t pay for their food because the community has just been so generous. That way, when a person comes up to get their meal, they can get anything on the menu they want and a drink and they don’t worry about paying. And of course they get the same smile and the same service as anyone else would get.”

Before he started cooking for a living, Willy worked as a youth minister. Although he still volunteers his time at church, his real ministry happens from his truck, where he feeds people who can’t afford to eat and gives everyone else an opportunity to be charitable in a simple way. 

“I’m really humbled by it," he said. "Really, I’m not doing anything. I’m out here to make a living and cook the food. It’s the people in Oklahoma City, they’re doing it, the response has just been wonderful.”

On occasion, diners hear about the suspended meal model and decide to go above and beyond the $5 contribution. Then, Willy gets really excited. While teaching a cooking class at an event recently, Willy was approached by a woman who decided to give a $500 tip to his mobile business. He’s turned that $500 into a food truck festival just for Oklahoma City’s homeless population, set for National Gumbo Day on Oct. 12. 

“The whole idea is to make a festival with people eating, sitting around, listening to stories and just being a community and being able to participate in something,” he said. “Oklahoma City does that a lot but a lot of homeless families don’t get to do it because they can’t afford it. We want them to have that chance.” 

A handful of other food trucks have signed on to hand out free food at the event, Willy said, and he looks forward for the chance to share Oklahoma City’s vibrant food truck culture with the people who might be missing out on family events.

Willy is currently a finalist in the Mutual of Omaha commercial campaign called “Aha Moments.” His story was one of 1,000 moments recorded by the company and he’s made it to the top 10. To win the campaign and be featured nationally in the ad campaign, he needs your votes. Click here to see his moment and vote for him before Friday, Oct. 10. 

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