December 4, 2013

Ashlee Hunt Kleinert ’88, the culinary entrepreneur behind Ruthie’s Rolling Café food trucks, connects her career trajectory to her University education.

Ashlee Hunt Kleinert '88

Ashlee Hunt Kleinert ’88

“I love knowing why something happened and all the things we can learn from the past: what we can repeat and what shouldn’t be repeated,” says Kleinert, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history from SMU and was a Dedman College Scholar.

She says lessons imparted by the late Glenn Linden, a favorite professor, still resonate with her today. “He taught me that history applies to everything and that we can use information gleaned from studying the past to shape the future.”

The analytical skills she developed as a student served her well in her latest venture. Kleinert started down the food truck route in 2010 when she contemplated their use at the charity galas and other large functions she designed through In Any Event, her special events planning company. After hearing more about food trucks at a national events conference, she was sold.

In an interview published in September in D CEO magazine, Kleinert admitted that her father, Ray L. Hunt ’65, was skeptical when she introduced her idea. Hunt, a well-known Dallas business and civic leader who serves on the SMU Board of Trustees, is now a huge fan.

The first Ruthie’s Rolling Café hit the streets of Dallas in 2011, just as the food-struck scene was gearing up. Kleinert’s grandmother inspired the name and the concept.

Ruthie's Rolling Café on campus

Ruthie’s Rolling Café on campus

“My grandmother’s name was Ruth. We’d go to her house and stay up late and talk and make grilled cheese,” she says. “So, we started with grilled cheese because we were trying to think of something that appeals to everyone; we wanted to be nostalgic and comforting. And we’re not gourmet cooks, so it felt authentic and real.”

Ruthie’s made-to-order sandwiches cover the grilled-cheese spectrum from The Classic – American cheese on sourdough bread – to The Truffle Shuffle – roast beef, white truffle oil, arugula and mozzarella on sourdough bread.

Since the business took off, Kleinert has phased out In Any Event to focus her full attention on the expanding fleet. The busy mother of three also manages a nonprofit, Executives in Action, which she formed with husband Chris in 2009. The group connects transitioning business executives with nonprofits in need of their expertise.

In addition to the original pink-and-blue truck, there is Ruthie’s Rolling Café Too, which also serves grilled-cheese specialties, and Ruthie’s Rolling Crêperie, billed as “French cuisine, Texas style: big and hearty,” featuring sweet and savory crêpes.

The Ruthie’s trucks are regulars on the SMU campus as part of the Tuesday and Thursday food truck rotation, as well as Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, the Truck Yard on Lower Greenville Avenue and other local hot spots.

“Every time we go out, it’s like a little mini event,” Kleinert says. “The creativity and variety – every day is different – really appeals to me.”

— Sarah Bennett  ’11