Food truck owners to travel south

Vanessa Ward founded Duke’s Place in 2016 inspired by husband’s career as jazz player



Vanessa Ward and her husband Brian Ward embrace in front of their food truck, Duke’s Place, May 1 in Moscow. The couple has lived in the area for years, serving residents in Moscow since they opened the business.

MAGGIE QUINLAN, Evergreen reporter

Three years ago, Vanessa Ward decided to take a risk, quit her day job and invest in a food truck to serve her soul food.

She said her husband Brian Ward’s passionate career in music inspired her from the time they started dating 25 years ago, but she didn’t dive into a satisfying career for herself until she started their restaurant on wheels, Duke’s Place.

Brian, a jazz pianist, composer, arranger and professor of music at WSU, met Vanessa while playing in a gospel choir in Portland in 1994. Brian left his Mormon family’s household and religion at age 17 to work as a musician.

“I’ve always known I was a musician,” Brian said. “I’ve never had any doubts about that, since I was a little kid.”

Vanessa felt blocked from her passions. She said she and Brian both came from “ultra-religious families,” but she lived a guarded life for longer, living with her parents into part of her twenties.

Her father was a preacher. She said she sang gospel music before she could speak but her parents stifled her musical ambitions. At age 21 she was a single mother.

“I was a worker ant,” she said. “I had to do any job that was available to feed my children.”

She said she promised herself that her children would never feel that disappointment. She thought Brian set an example for her two sons, Damon and Demetrius Keller, to do what they love. Supporting Brian’s inspired career was always part of the plan.

“You never ask a musician to choose between what they love to do and you,” She said. “Because they’ll love you enough to walk away from their music but guarantee you within a few years they’re going to start resenting and hating you.”

Vanessa said she would follow Brian anywhere he needed to go for his craft. This summer, music will drive the couple to caravan with their food truck to Lawrence, Kansas where Brian will pursue a doctorate of musical arts at the University of Kansas.

“We live the life of nomads,” Brian said.

The couple isn’t afraid of challenges. They faced resistance from the beginning of their relationship.

Vanessa is 10 years older than Brian; she’s black and he’s white. Brian said some restaurants in Portland refused to serve them in the 90s, and on a trip to New Orleans celebrating her 50th birthday, a waiter sat down and asked if they got dirty looks.

“In the South, we’re an oddity down there,” Brian said.

Vanessa’s family didn’t accept Brian for a long time either. Her mother apologized to Brian the night before she passed away, Vanessa said.

“She said, ‘Oh, I can see you really love my daughter,’ ” Vanessa said.

Vanessa and Brian tried to instill in their children that they should do what they love regardless of others’ opinions. Her oldest two sons Damon and Demetrius are dancers. The couple’s youngest two sons, David and Jacob Ward, study music and fashion respectively at the University of Michigan. She said David had a strong drive to play drums from the time he was a toddler.

“That’s his manifest destiny,” Vanessa said.

Vanessa and Brian’s business, Duke’s Place, is named for their first son together born before David and Jacob. Edward “Duke” Kennedy Ellington Ward, named after the jazz icon, died as a baby. Vanessa called Duke her “angel baby” and she said he keeps her grounded. She lives right so she can meet him.

“I do believe one day I’ll see him again if St. Peter let me in the gate,” she said.

Vanessa learned Cajun and Creole recipes watching her mother cook, and her motherly love flows through the business. She said she connects with the students she feeds. She said they’re far from their own mothers and she’s happy to comfort them.

She said her son David, a drummer, performed at John’s Alley in Moscow many weekends and gave her the idea to partner. He told her the businesses were a match made in heaven. The bar doesn’t serve food and Duke’s Place doesn’t serve alcohol. But Vanessa said students ended up coming to her when they didn’t need to eat.

“At 10:30 or 11 at night students come up saying, ‘Mama Duke I just wanted to see you and give you a hug,’ ” Vanessa said.

The business is close to Vanessa’s heart, in part, because it represents a new era for her. She said she worked unsatisfying jobs as a paralegal for years.

She had a taste of combining work with her passions several years ago when the family lived in Portland. She started a business, Let Me Cook For You LLC, which offered homemade meals to barbers and their customers on weekends.

“That was our hustle for a long time,” Brian said.

She said she gained knowledge about business permitting through her work as a paralegal. She said for a while she texted Brian every day to ask if she could quit her job and he’d reply with a straight-face emoji. When he sent back a happy face one day she quit on the spot, walked out at her lunch break and didn’t come back.

When they bought the truck, it wasn’t running well but Brian worked on the truck’s mechanics. One of their first nights in business the engine wouldn’t start. Vanessa said she watched Brian replace the alternator.

“Just thinking about it made my shoulder hurt,” Vanessa said. “It started right up so we went out that night.”

They will prep the truck for their cross-country road trip, but if they break down along the way Vanessa said she’s confident Brian will get them running.

“Chevy 350 engine,” Brian said. “I can keep it running forever,”

If Duke’s Place does much better in Kansas City they’ll settle in the city and Brian will commute 40 minutes to Lawrence, Kansas for school. They want to be flexible for each other to do work that makes them happy.

“I’ve watched Brian get up every day and go do what he loves to do,” Vanessa said. “It’s not work when you love doing it.”