As the Bay Area’s go-to source for everything ube, Marley’s Treats‘s purple food truck has a reputation that precedes it. And the story of how it started is as sweet as the baked goods it makes.
After spending part of her career as a receptionist and in data entry for a legal firm, Gemma Ballesteros decided to give baking for Bay Area diners a chance when her daughter, Marley (the truck’s namesake), was born in 2010. When Marley arrived, Filipino baking was still a pretty niche concept around the region, like it was when Ballesteros grew up in the Bay Area. So Ballesteros wanted to spotlight her Filipino-American heritage, along with the delicious items that she and her family were familiar with.
When Marley was born, Ballesteros spent more and more time in the kitchen, “experimenting” with the flavors of Filipino cuisine in desserts and baking. “We wanted to do something different and kind of introduce the Filipino flavor palate,” explains Ballesteros.” We are all Filipino-American, so growing up with how we grew up versus now…we’re trying to get more in touch with the American flavors.” And Marley’s Treats thrives at doing that.Marley’s is where Filipino ingredients and flavor meet American desserts and pastries.
After starting as a kitchen and café in Oakland, Marley’s Treats’ truck began driving in 2017. By that time, Ballesteros needed more space than the Oakland location provided, so she bought a Hayward commissary in 2018. But the construction took nearly two years to complete, so it didn’t open until around the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Whether guests are picking up their treats at the Hayward location or from the truck roaming around San Francisco and other Bay Area cities, there will surely be lots of ube across the menu. The vibrant purple produce accents the cheesecakes with or without homemade leche flan. There are ube cupcakes—and non-ube cupcakes with various changing flavors. Ube shows up in the ‘flandesals’, a soft ube bread with custard-like leches flan. Perhaps there will be ube rice krispies with pandan, ube hot cocoa “bombs,” or even ube milkshakes. And there surely will be flanana, which is a delicious hybrid of banana pudding and that leches flan (no ube here, though).
And, yes, there’s definitely a chance that Marley will be the one serving your ube sampler from the truck on your next visit! Ballesteros says that working at the truck has been a great educational experience for Marley growing up, especially when it comes to how to handle money and counting skills.
Here’s Gemma’s take on how it all started, what sets it apart and advice she’d give other entrepreneurs.
1. How did you become interested initially in the food business?
In 2010, I had my daughter, Marley, and found myself at home and started baking again.
2. Why did you decide to start your mobile food concept?
We had a little storefront in Oakland and wanted to see what other options we had in connecting with other parts of the Bay Area.
3. What’s your cooking or food philosophy?
That you have to love what you do, especially in creating things for others to enjoy and feel good about.
4. What are the biggest unknown challenges of running a food truck in the Bay Area?
I would have to say the restraints of having to get multiple licenses and permits.
5. What are some changes that your truck has made because of the pandemic?
The truck was out for a few months because of the pandemic, so we had to start taking smaller jobs as soon as they were available
6. What’s your favorite dish at your food truck? And what’s your favorite dish at another food truck?
My personal favorite is the Ube Sampler. It has a little bit of everything on the menu.
But I have so many different favorites on different trucks. On the Hula Truck, the adobo omelette. On the Los Kuyas truck, tocino tacos. The Lumpia Company, their Chicken Tinola lumpia. I can go on and on.
7. What’s something that sets your business apart from other food businesses?
Initially, that we serve just desserts, but also that we offer flavors that aren’t too common.
8. What advice would you give someone who wants to start a food truck?
Be ready for anything, and don’t give up. It’s definitely challenging in multiple ways, but the people we’ve met along the way and the look on peoples faces when they try our products make it worth it.
By Trevor Felch