Dining With Denise Neil

Lumpia lady on such a roll, she considers putting customers to work

Things have gotten pretty desperate in lumpia land these days.

Cynthia Wilson and Craig Bjork, who own the LumpiaPalooza food truck as well as its “mother ship,” Parsnipity Cafe inside the Epic Center at 301 N. Main, just can’t keep up with the demand for their signature item.

The couple, who specialize in their interpretation of lumpia – traditional Filipino-style egg rolls that they stuff with all kinds of wild ingredients, from chocolate chip cookie dough to mac and cheese – have had to get creative in employing help.

They’ve hired half of the Maize High competitive cheerleading squad to help roll the lumpia.

They’ve hired clients from Goodwill Industries to roll. They’ve hired youth group members from their church and even have coerced some of their close friends to roll. They’ve also recruited their close friends’ mothers.

The main requirement of someone who applies for a job rolling lumpia, Wilson said, is a pulse.

She even admits she’s eyed a few customers enjoying themselves in her cafe and wondered whether their time could be ... better spent.

“I’ll think, ‘If you keep ordering lumpia like this, you’re going to be rolling it, bucko,’ ” she said with a laugh.

In the three months since Wilson and Bjork opened their new food truck, it’s become clear that Wichita loves lumpia. The truck is booked solid with events through October.

So much rolling is required that Wilson just sacrificed a private dining room at Parsnipity Cafe, where she would cater lunches and dinners on fine china, and turned it into a lumpia-rolling factory. Some of the staff rolls traditional lumpia, the only kind served in the cafe. The rest stuffs and rolls the crazy varieties sold on the food truck. Wilson and her staff have developed 40 different lumpia, and they offer about 10 different varieties at a time on the truck.

It’s a reality that’s both happy and terrifying, said Wilson, who says that even if she can get 600 lumpia a day out of her rollers, it’s often not enough.

“We almost can’t keep up with this monster,” she said. “But we are.”

It started last fall when Wilson, a seasoned home cook, took over the cafe on the ground floor of the Epic Center that had been run by Toni D’s Too for 26 years. She decided to add lumpia to her menu, remembering how much she loved it when she was living in Hawaii as a young woman. When she became a mother, lumpia was always in the weekly dinner rotation.

In Parsnipity’s early days, her customers loved her lumpia – a long and skinny fried spring roll stuffed with ground beef, carrots, onions, celery, salt and pepper and served with a side of homemade sweet and sour sauce. But one day, Wilson and her kitchen staff were feeling silly. They had some pulled pork left over, and they wondered what it would taste like fried up in a lumpia wrapper.

The answer: amazing.

“Suddenly we were putting everything in there and saying to our customers, ‘Taste this! Taste this!’ ” she said. “And they loved it.”

On Halloween last year, Wilson organized an event called LumpiaPalooza. The staff prepared 20 different kinds of lumpia, each stuffed with wild sweet and savory ingredients, from apple pie to banana Nutella to feta and spinach. She sold the little rolls for $1.50 apiece, promising to make LumpiaPalooza a regular event if it was successful.

“We sold 1,000 lumpia that day,” she said. “It was both the best day and the worst day of my life. We had only been in business two months and weren’t even quite on our feet, and the lines were down the street.”

Maybe, Wilson told her husband, they needed a food truck.

LumpiaPalooza opened in April, and now it’s in high demand at events all over the city. It just wrapped up a stint at the Sedgwick County Fair – where it was the first food truck ever invited to serve there – and throughout the rest of the summer, it will be set up at local breweries and stationed at music festivals and business openings and fairs.

Meanwhile, the businesses’ ever-growing staff will just keep rolling and rolling and rolling.

Recently, I followed LumpiaPalooza out to the Sedgwick County Fair, where I ordered its special – one of everything for $20. (Otherwise, the lumpia are $2 apiece.) This purchase, by the way, qualified me to sign the outside of the truck in green Sharpie, and I plopped my signature beside Ron Baker’s and Evan Wessel’s near the truck’s window. Yes, the former Shocker basketball stars are lumpia fans, too.

I tried the most popular flavor, Mississippi roast, which was amazing, but I was partial to the taco-flavored lumpia. My box also included a vegan Caribbean lumpia, a pepperoni pizza lumpia and a whole range of dipping sauces, from ranch dressing to taco sauce.

But my favorite are the sweet lumpia. My box had a heavenly blueberry lemon, a firecracker lumpia stuffed with sprinkle-spiked sugar cookie dough and – best of all – a chocolate chip cookie dough lumpia, whose center was melty perfection.

Things are going so well that Wilson and Bjork are considering adding more trucks to the fleet.

They’ll figure out later how to get all that rolling done.

Thinking of applying to help?

“Here’s the interview process,” Wilson said with a laugh. “Someone comes in to roll lumpia, and I say, ‘Are you alive? Yes? OK, you’re hired.’ ”

Denise Neil: 316-268-6327, @deniseneil

Where LumpiaPalooza is rolling next

You can always get traditional lumpia inside Parsnipity Cafe in the atrium of the Epic Center at 301 N. Main. To get the crazy stuff, you must find the truck. Here’s its schedule for the rest of the month. To find out more, visit the truck’s Facebook page.

▪ July 21: 6 p.m., dinner at Aero Plains Brewing, 117 N. Handley

▪ July 22-23: Mini Maker Faire at Exploration Place, 300 N. McLean

▪ July 25: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., lunch at the Brittany Center Tag office, 2120 N. Woodlawn

▪ July 26: 6 p.m., dinner at Aero Plains Brewing, 117 N. Handley

▪ July 27: 2-6 p.m., Skyward Greenwich Branch Open House, 275 S. Greenwich

▪ July 28: 6 p.m., Final Friday at Confluence Community Center, 520 Commerce

▪ July 29: noon, lunch at Aero Plains Brewing, 117 N. Handley