Since his grand opening on July 28, Tim McRae and his WTF? food shack has brought great short order items to Ewing Township using local produce, graciousness and a whole lot of fun.
On the sandwich board just in front Tim McRae’s new WTF? (Where’s The Food) shack is a list of tenets to be aware of while waiting.
One reads, “This is not fast food. We cook to order. We have no heat lamps, no microwaves and no warming trays.”
Another reads, “Patience is not the ability to wait, but how you act while you’re waiting. Even a snail eventually reaches its destination.”
Lastly, there’s a number to call to complain: 555-5555 (a fake number that is not assigned to any phone). Those three statements sum up the vibe at WTF? Fresh local fare prepared to order while you wait, by a man who epitomizes grace and humor, longtime Ewing resident Tim McRae, who recently opened the food stand in the Cifelli’s fuel station parking lot on Parkway Avenue.
With his hearty laugh behind an even more infectious smile, McRae speedily took orders for guests while entertaining with stories and anecdotes. Waiting in the heat, under umbrellas at one of his outdoor tables, folks gathered on one recent summner day and chose from a short menu chock full of tasty comfort treats.
From his fried seafood combo reminiscent of the fish platters from the old Trenton landmarks the Shrimp Boat and Speckle Red’s, to fresh special salads using local greens from Pleasant Valley Garlic Farm, he believes in bringing Ewing Township what isn’t readily available everywhere else.
‘It’s not fast food, it’s fresh food fast.’
McRae talks about the journey that led him to food and why he retired his well known and successful food truck business and opened the WTF? food stand.
“Who introduced me to food was obviously my first love, Mama. God bless her soul,” he says. “She’s been dead 21 years. The first thing she taught us was, ‘don’t ever wait on a woman to do something for you. Learn how to cook. Learn how to clean.’ And this was a lady with 10 kids. She always said, ‘you’re not going to be that lazy guy,’” he says.
The McRaes originally hail from Dillon, South Carolina, in the heart of rum running territory. After being successful sharecroppers for a few generations, the family got into the bootleg liquor business, creating what McRae calls the best sour mash in the area. Keeping it all in the family, McRae’s aunt Ruby ran the biggest juke joint—or backwoods speakeasy—in Dillon.
The family moved to New Jersey in 1953, and in 1954 McRae’s dad entered the janitorial business still as an entrepreneur. He went from janitorial to laundromats in East Trenton and eventually North Trenton, South Trenton and Lawrence, where he used to run the laundromats in Lawrence Square Village.
He brought in his two brothers, one who did heating repair and another who worked in oil, and eventually McRae Oil, along with Sample and Gentry became the three original Black oil companies in Trenton. When he was born, the family lived on Southard Street in North Trenton. In 1973 they moved to the Churchill Greens neighborhood in Ewing. In the years after that, the McRaes went into the carpeting and the landscaping industries, giving Tim so much to draw from when beginning his own entrepreneurial journey.
“My first job was at the laundromat. Mopping floors. Cleaning the bathrooms,” he says. “I didn’t start out in the office. I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth. I started as a grunt. I would clean the junkie bathrooms. I took the liquor bottles and would throw them out. We had this one guy—an alcoholic named Slim. He always kept his bottles in the toilet tank, and I poured them out one day. Slim was over six feet tall. He came in and I saw this big shadow over me, and I ran between his legs and got out of there. I never messed with Slim’s liquor bottles after that,” he says.
McRae always had interest in running the family business, but his dad and uncles never structured it to pass it on. So in 2005 to 2008 he became a direct competitor—opening his own oil business. He, with his wife Lisa, recently fully committed to phasing out of the oil business, however, to go full time into the franchise food business.
“I started doing food in my backyard when we’d party,” Tim says. “My friends would ask me to make something, throw something on the grill and they put the idea in my head to open a food truck. Lisa and I would watch Food Network shows and eventually we said, ‘yeah, let’s start a food truck business.’ So in 2013, we birthed the WTF? food truck,” he says.
After that earworm from friends prompted McRae to open the WTF? truck, he started appearing at most of the local outdoor events in the Trenton area—the Jersey Fresh Jam and Art All Night among them. His YouTube videos for the business and his WTF? Instagram ads are hilarious.
McRae adds that you need your full supply of humor and patience—his virtues—when dealing with city permits and paperwork.
“The city of Trenton is not equipped,” he says. “City Hall gets your permits, tells you when you can vend, and when to shut down—a three-hour window. We were in compliance—we’d vend for three hours and shut it down—but we’d need an hour for the grease to cool off before we could move. It’s not an ice cream truck, so the city would say we were taking too long vending and going against the rules.”
“These rules are antiquated,” he says “They haven’t been changed since 1939. I don’t have time to sit in court and fight old vending laws. I’m running a business. Their vending laws are based on carts. There are no more carts. Its all food trucks now. Everything has evolved.”
Not that opening the WTF? food stand was without effort. McRae had been fueling up the food truck with propane at Cifelli’s for five years. When he saw that the food stand space in the lot was vacant, he thought it’d be a great space to open up WTF? He asked Pop Cifelli if he’d let him lease the space and was referred to his son Tony.
McRae asked and asked, but it wasn’t until after the new Wawa opened down the road, which took a chunk out of Cifelli’s gas business, that the ball really started rolling. Cifelli realized that after losing some income on gas, it was a no-brainer to rent that empty space to generate more. Now, McRae provides a little something for everybody with his WTF? menu, and not the same food being offered by other shops in the area.
“In a two-mile radius there are more than eight places to eat that serve what we don’t,” he says. “Shrimp po-boy, you can’t find that in Ewing. General Tso’s wings…we started that. We try and create something different. We change our menu often, and it’s all local. I keep my money in my community. When I go somewhere to shop, I know my dollar has circulated through my community at least six to eight times. From Shop Rite to the farmer’s market to Terry Delahanty at Pleasant Valley Garlic Farm, to City Beef to Dutch’s who does fresh ground meat in Ewing,” he says.
When he’s not operating the food stand, with his wife Lisa and with Larry Laflin, his short order cook, McRae is also a music manager for a few local standout performers.
“I’ve been into music since 1988 when we had a rap group called Strong Peeps, me and my nephew,” he says. “We had a single called ‘Living It,’ that Kool G. Rap used on the And-1 mixtape. It took off. That gave me the music bug. Then I was a hype man for my nephew Maurice (Ewing’s Mo Flats), a rapper who’s still going strong, and his daughter Ladibug, who opened up at Levitt Amp last month,” he says.
McRae also insists that his newest artist, Ewing’s Jay Vareen, is the missing link in R & B music. He’s the main focus right now as is his niece Ladibug. She’s the one to watch, McRae says. A young Whitney Houston. Her real name is Destiny, which McRae sees as a good omen.
What’s next for McRae and his wife Lisa, who’ve been together for 27 years, is to branch out. His twins with Lisa are 22. His oldest son from another relationship is 26. He’s in Virginia, which is why McRae wants to go there next with WTF?
“Generational wealth is not taught to us Black folks. It’s taught to every other race and culture. Italians, Chinese, the Jewish…Look at the family structure: three generations in one house. What’s wrong with that? And when other races can come together to do business, that’s amazing to me. We need to realize we’re all here together. Let’s work together. Let’s support each other,” he says.
Working with family and paying it forward is his number one goal in business. It isn’t easy, however. And McRae has a funny way of expressing the frustration from being in the same tiny space with someone, even someone you love.
“That’s why we keep plastic forks around,” he says. “You will kill each other in the food industry working together. But we’re tying to franchise. Whether people believe it or not. I want to do my next store in Virginia, with a liquor license, which is cheaper down there,” he says. “And a full stage so I can bring my artists down. We’ll control the food, the music and the liquor. I want to go down the East coast with a series of stores. If you go to Hard Rock, they’re all themed the same. Not with WTF? It’ll always have the Ewing WTF? feel—Ewing dirt is on my DNA—but always a different theme,” he says.
No matter how many towns on the East Coast McRae opens a WTF? business, his focus will always be on local, quality produce, on family, and on fun. All the way up until closing time cars pull into the Cifelli’s lot and folks walk up to the window matching McRae’s smile with their own. On each box of food could be a funny quip like, “The grease on the box is always free,” making it impossible to walk away without laughing. The tenets on the sandwich board notwithstanding, his diners seem to understand his motto:
“It’s not fast food, it’s fresh food fast,” McRae says.