Tuesday, February 27, 2024

After health scare, chef focuses on ‘good food, good for you’ with new food truck

Jess and Michael Heibein with their children and their new food truck, Ripe. (Courtesy Ripe)

WILMINGTON — A chef facing a health crisis at the end of 2019 turned a hardship into a new lifestyle. With it has come the launch of his own food truck, Ripe.

READ MORE: First-time restaurateur eyes January opening for Meet the Greek

Michael Heibein started his culinary operation in the fall with his wife, Jessica, and parks the wheels four nights a week at various events, bottle shops and breweries. 

“At first, I wasn’t going to bars,” he told Port City Daily last week — a choice made after ditching alcohol, changing his eating habits and working out. “I was parked at fitness clubs.”

The goal was to serve nutritious eats pre- and post-workout to other health-minded people. Heibein began focusing on his diet and cleaner living after a health scare. Four-and-a-half years ago, he was hospitalized due to diverticulitis — inflammation or infection in the digestive tract. He had to have an ostomy bag for a few months and spent time in and out of the hospital, undergoing numerous surgeries, from August 2019 until 2021. 

“After going through all that, I really developed an interest in nutrition and in my health,” he said. “You know, I’ve spent all these years feeding people and I’ve never really stopped to realize what I was doing to myself. Chefs don’t have the best eating habits and we’ve been known to drink heavily.”

Heibein has worked in restaurants for 20 years, from fine-dining — including locally at True Blue Brands, Circa 1922 and Brasserie du Soleil — to Disneyland. He’s done logistics management, been a sous chef and chef, overseen catering and more. 

The winter bowl, with sweet potato hash, chicken, Brussels sprouts, beets and goat cheese. (Courtesy Ripe)

While he misses the camaraderie of having his own kitchen crew, owning his own business, the freedom of making his own schedule and being near family more outweighs the bad. He and his wife balance rearing two children under 8 and running a dog grooming business, Grooming By Jess, while also operating Ripe. 

“Sometimes the girls go with us on the truck,” he said. “My daughter’s 6 months old and just fits in a bumbo by the window, playing, and customers eat it up on the other side.”

The 37-year-old had an idea to start his own operation two decades ago.

“It was the height of Food Network when these trailers and stuff were coming to light, back in the early 2000s, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is a great idea,’” he recalled. 

Heibein wanted to operate trucks up the East Coast accompanied by brick-and-mortars located 15 miles or so inland. Fast-forward to today and he rolled out Ripe in Wilmington, though he isn’t sure he wants it to become a restaurant. It’s too soon to tell, he said, but the feedback he has received from diners has been positive. 

The menu is heavily focused on bowls made with whole foods: protein, vegetables and clean carbohydrates, cooked in all-natural ingredients, such as avocado oil rather than butter.

“I have used beef tallow for the beef bowl,” he said. 

It consists of grilled steak with mushrooms, onion, broccoli and pecan gremolata. The bowls are the most popular items, with a grilled chicken version — zucchini, yellow squash, tomato, lemon-herb yogurt sauce — and veggies. An egg can be added to upgrade the meal.

Heibein’s favorite is the turkey taco bowl, featuring seasoned ground, lean turkey, guacamole, shredded lettuce, peppers, onion, salsa and goat cheese. 

“It’s always been kind of my go-to as a chef, like just the end-of-the-night meal after a shift,” he said, “throwing together scraps of what’s leftover.”

All the bowls are served on a bed of basmati rice or sweet potato hash. 

There is also a breakfast bowl — two eggs, turkey bacon, arugula, tomato, guacamole and sweet potato hash — and a fall parfait. Heibein was going to switch up the Greek vanilla yogurt and pumpkin flavors to a more winter-esque flavor profile. Yet, diners asked him to keep it as is, and he’s in the business of repeat customers, so he listened for now.

The turkey smashburger, a special featured during Thanksgiving on Ripe food truck. (Courtesy Ripe)

Prices are $8 to $15 and the menu is supplemented by daily specials. Heibein is in the season of creating stews; he’s served a short rib version, as well as white chicken chili. He has also devised a winter bowl with beets and did a turkey smashburger back at Thanksgiving.

Heibein’s clean food is prepared with locally sourced ingredients; he has used Farmage out of Castle Hayne and Biggers Market, with plans to expand use of local vendors. The goal is to keep it “ripe,” a name cultivated among the changing of seasons while visiting the North Carolina mountains as the leaves were falling during autumn.

“It came to me in a hot tub,” Heibein said, while vacationing with family and friends. “Everyone kept asking me what kind of food I would serve. I would tell them: ‘good food, good for you.’”

It became Ripe’s motto, which has done dozens of events since debuting in September. The truck will be parked through Feb. 17 at the following locations:

  • Jan. 25: Eagle’s Dare, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. 
  • Jan. 26: Fermental, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. 
  • Jan. 27: Dead Crow Comedy Room, 5:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
  • Jan. 31: Flytrap Brewing, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
  • Feb. 2: Fermental, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
  • Feb. 7: Flytrap Brewing, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
  • Feb. 8: Freya’s Haus, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
  • Feb. 10: Dead Crow Comedy Room, 5:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
  • Feb. 16: Dead Crow Comedy Room, 5:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
  • Feb. 17: Outer Dunes Brewing Company, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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