What happens when the space you chose to spread goodwill and a little refreshments suddenly disappears?
You take to the road. At least, that’s what Union is doing.
Union opened its doors nearly six years ago, offering more than just a space to share coffee. It was also a stage for expression, a space for conversation and, at times, a sanctuary for worship and acceptance.
But that space isn’t currently there. In fact, it’s not really one place at all. Executive director Mike Baughman is working out of a space downtown, since his team made the decision to relocate to Oak Lawn.
The worship groups meet at different areas of the city, and their volunteers still run around the city serving others. With things in limbo while Baughman and others work out the details on their next location — a coffee shop on the property of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church off Cedar Springs Road — Union decided to try another tactic.
Say hello to the Union food truck.
“When we discovered it would be more likely January it would be opening, that was the beginning of June, we began to problem-solve,” Baughman says. “The thing that seemed to solve the challenges we were facing seemed to be the food truck, as not only something that could help us with our short-term challenges, but also long-term.
“It’s a way that we can actively engage the community," he says. "It’s a way we can drive traffic eventually to future locations as they open. And most importantly, we saw it as something that aligned with our core values and fit in with our theory of change.”
Union has a religious affiliation, having received its initial funding from the North Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. But this truck won’t be a modern-day version of the street preacher slinging out drip coffee.
“Our mission is to cultivate the divine spark in our neighbors for the good of Dallas and the world that it inspires,” Baughman says. “By divine spark, we mean that by the absolute best. Just whatever the best in there is, we want to cultivate and support that,” Baughman says.
Baughman’s wife, Rachel, is the senior pastor at Oak Lawn UMC, but the church offered the space to Union before she joined the staff there.
Until that location opens, there’s the truck.
“We have volunteer roles on the truck — one of those is line leaders — and those are folks who will stand off-truck, take orders and get to know people while they’re waiting for their food, placing their order,” Baughman says. “Not in the creepy way that the guy on the plane keeps talking to you, but for those who are interested in the conversation, sharing more about who they are, we want to connect with them."
As for what they’re serving: You’ll find some savory foods and, of course, coffee. That last one may seem obvious, but it’s been a journey for both the organization and Baughman himself.
“When we first opened, we were pretty terrible at the coffee piece,” he says. “Then as time went on, we kind of developed into a medium-tier coffee shop. We improved the grounds, we improved our training programs, everything else. But I still think we were kind of the middle tier as far as coffee goes, and the top tier in community engagement.”
Baughman has kept the management team in place, even while they aren’t making sales. And they’ve made some changes. They’ve switched roasters, opting for Onyx Coffee Lab out of Fayetteville, Arkansas. And a craft cortado menu is in the works.
“My own personal journey with coffee has progressed with Union,” Baughman says. “When we opened Union, I was someone who said, ‘Yeah, I run a coffee shop, but I don’t like coffee. I like what coffee does for people. I like that it connects people.’ What I’ve learned over time is, it’s not that I don’t like coffee, it’s that I don’t like bad coffee. As I’ve had really good, high-end specialty coffee, I realize, this I’m down for.”
The truck is going to have something else: sandwiches.
If that doesn’t sound exciting, think about this: You’ve been out drinking. It’s nearing midnight. You’re on the Cedar Springs strip. You could go to Cafe Brazil for a grilled cheese, but it changed its bread years ago, and you know it’s not as good as it once was.
Then you see the Union food truck, serving breakfast sandwiches. Decision made.
“There’s a great breakfast taco culture in Dallas, and we’re kind of wanting to build on to that, but to have a different experience. If you just create breakfast tacos, you’d be like everyone else,” Baughman says. “And part of my heritage — if you can use that word to describe someone from New Jersey — is knowing the beauty of a well-put-together fried egg sandwich, with yolk intact, over easy.
“As I learned in New Orleans, late one night after a decent amount of partying with friends, there are few things that I want more in life, if I’ve had a couple of drinks, than a yolky egg sandwich. There’s something about it that’s just comfort food but also is nice and hardy but not in a way that makes me nauseous.”
The menu will have the standard, bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, along with a nod to Baughman’s “heritage,” with the Jersey: a pork roll slice, egg and cheese. Then there’s the Texan: a chorizo patty topped with an over-easy egg and a white-cheddar queso. And because they’re thinking about what appeals to a diverse clientele, they considered a gluten-free option.
Union is picking up the food truck, with its custom wrap, from San Antonio this week. They’ll test a few things in a few places before doing whatever the equivalent of a grand opening is for a food truck. Then, they’ll target locations.
“As we’ve had brick-and-mortar space for Union, we’ve done a lot to be a sanctuary space for marginalized communities in the city of Dallas,” Baughman says. “We’ve been a sanctuary space for LGBTQ folks who identify in the spectrum, we’ve been a sanctuary space for the Muslim community, for a lot of events surrounding conversations of race and privilege, carving out space for important conversations there.
“The food truck represents the possibility for us to serve in other people’s sanctuaries," he says.
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Those planned spaces as of now are the Cedar Springs strip, the Medical District and the Education Corridor of southern Dallas.
“We want to humbly enter into those spaces and do our best to support,” he says.
Union is also a nonprofit. This week, along with North Texas Giving Week, Union will host a live awards show to recognize people who have come out of Union and are serving their communities. They aim to make their fundraisers fun and unexpected. You can find the food truck at the Cidercade from 8 to 11 p.m. Sept. 20 for the North Texas Giving Day Celebration.
When first hearing about Dallas getting another food truck, you may roll your eyes. But for this one, hold off your eye-roll until you taste that pork roll, egg sandwich and see the impact this rolling coffee shop has on a community.