Tim McRae doesn’t want to be pigeonholed.
McRae is an entrepreneur and he’s an actor. He’s a restaurateur and a rapper, a cook and a comedian. Through his consulting business, he advises business owners as well as musicians. He spoke last month in a discussion about men’s mental health.
When he wants to make a video commercial to promote his Ewing restaurant, called WTF? — short for Where’s the Food? — he writes and stars in the video himself, then shares it to his popular WTF? social media feed.
McRae takes naturally to the camera. He works with two local directors — Roshon Tyson of 2677 Films and Will Foskey of 78 Ways Studio — to create the humorous skits, which can also be seen on YouTube.
McRae is also part of the cast of a speculative TV show to be set and shot in Trenton. Writer-director Andrew Froening’s 22-minute proof-of-concept pilot, called “Into Gray,” will be one of 49 short films scheduled to be screened online during the International Film Festival Manhattan Nov. 19 through 22. McRae co-stars as drug kingpin DeAndre West.
But McRae has long been a multitalented multitasker. He was in the oil business in 2013 when he and wife Lisa started WTF? as a food truck. He didn’t have any formal culinary training, just a passion for cooking and an idea of what he liked to eat.
In coming up with a menu for the truck, he knew that he didn’t want to try to meet anyone’s expectations of what he should do. “I didn’t want to just do soul food,” he says. “It’s so stereotypical for an African-American man to make soul food. So that’s why we did what we did. We’ve done Greek fests, we’ve done German food. We went against the grain.”
In 2018, the McRaes sold the truck and set up shop at 1543 Parkway Avenue, in a small food stand next to Cifelli Fuels (the old Picerno’s). There is no indoor seating and no heat in the small food stand. Each year, McRae closes the restaurant around Christmas, with the intention of reopening in the spring.
Covid-19 threw everything into disarray for restaurants this year, and for WTF? it was no different. But, McRae says, despite the anxiety and the risks of running a restaurant during a pandemic, he felt that reopening was something he needed to do.
“[The pandemic] scared everybody, I mean the world literally shut down,” he says. “But all my friends and family were telling me, ‘You’ve been doing outdoor dining since 2013, you can do this.’ I realized that I couldn’t serve my community sitting on my couch watching Fear Factor, which is what I called the news at that time.”
So he talked to Lisa, talked to his staff, and made the decision to reopen. “We were already set up for outdoor dining so we ran with it, and I’m so glad we did. Everybody was at home because of Covid, the college kids were all home,” he says. “Once we opened, people came here to hang out. People lost their lives (due to Covid), I had family members who were sick. Covid has been a curse to people, but for us it was also a blessing. We were packed.”
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McRae is a great storyteller, and he has a classic story about the way the shrimp po’ boy ($15) — WTF’s take on the New Orleans classic of cajun fried shrimp on a hoagie roll — got on the menu.
“When we started out on the food truck in 2013, we had a spot downtown on West State Street, in front of the Christian Science bookstore. We were doing a rice and beans platter with shrimp and one day for lunch I decided I wanted something different,” he says. “So I took the shrimp from the rice and beans platter and sauteed it up — on our first po’ boys the shrimp were sauteed — and I said, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good.’
“The next customer that came up, she was a state worker, and I said, ‘Hey, we got a shrimp po’boy special today’ and she said she’d take one. The next day people started coming up to the truck and saying ‘I want the shrimp po’ boy.’ It was one of those aha moments and we added the shrimp po’ boy to the menu. Once we started frying the shrimp people went crazy for it and the lines got longer.”
Also on the menu today are a fried seafood platter ($18), the WTF? Orient Express (an Asian-style lo mein dish, $12), plus burgers and cheesesteaks, chicken wings four ways, A pork roll sandwich with Trenton’s own Case pork roll, and two vegetarian dishes: black bean burgers ($7) and cold Asian-style sesame noodles ($5).
Specials, which change regularly, are announced on social media. Recent selections include stewed beef tips, shrimp and grits and Chef Pat Czerniak’s Phat Pat sandwich: beef cheese steak topped with American cheese, mozzarella sticks, fries and fried onions and served with beer battered onion rings.
When McRae turned 50 last month, he featured a special of “cheese toast” — a Velveeta grilled cheese sandwich topped with maple syrup. “I’m not a chef,” he says. “I didn’t spend $100,000 to go to cooking school. In my family, there were 10 of us at home. The first person who taught me how to cook was my mother. First thing she showed me how to make was what we called cheese toast. From there my love for food just took off.”
McRae has another great story about the moment he first believed that his food truck was going to be a success. It came during his trip down to Concession Nation in Deerfield Beach, Florida, where he had gone with his cousin, Eric Reed, to pick up the new, custom $75,000 WTF? truck and drive it back to New Jersey.
He remembers stopping at a gas station near the Florida-Georgia border to refuel.
“We went inside to use the bathroom and grab some snacks,” he says. “Now mind you, I’m there and I’m worrying, I’m thinking is this going to work, did I just make a $75,000 mistake, is this name WTF going to be alright? And we come out of the store and there’s a line of people at the truck.
“We go over to them and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, we thought you were open.’ I asked them what attracted you to the truck. They said it was the name. ‘You know, like, what the F is that truck? We had to find out. So that was another one of those aha moments where I started to think we were going to do fine.”
McRae may be flexing his acting chops with his role in “Into Gray” and his WTF? commercials, but he remains deeply committed to the restaurant business. In fact, he and Reed are well into the planning stages of launching an ambitious joint venture that would combine their two businesses under one roof.
Reed is the chef behind VBQ Philly, a vegan barbecue food stand that sometimes pops up in the WTF? Kitchen. Reed’s menu features items like BBQ jackfruit sandwich, which he likens to pulled pork in texture and flavor, and a grilled cheese sandwich made with vegan cheese.
McRae and Reed are currently scouting locations in the area where they could bring their vision to life together.
“Eric’s food is so soulful and tasteful, if you don’t tell somebody what they’re eating, they wouldn’t believe it was vegan,” McRae says. “What we’re trying to do right now is bring New Jersey the first vegan and carnivorous restaurant together under the same roof, working with two completely different cook lines. Our slogan is “The Best of Both Worlds.”
McRae believes there is a growing segment of customers who are vegan, but few places they can go out to eat. “Around here there’s only three vegan spots that are even around, and two of them are in the Trenton Farmers Market,” he says. “There’s a whole market of people, they just want good food. We want to give people choices.”
WTF?, 1543 Parkway Ave., Ewing NJ 08628. Phone: (609) 882-5100. Hours: Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Closing Dec. 19 for the winter, with plans to reopen in March or April.