If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve shown up to parties and immediately asked, “Where’s the food?” Well, one Mercer County eatery’s got the best answer to that question.
Pennington’s own WTF?—not what you think it means—is nestled on the corner of Washington Crossing Pennington and Reed roads. It shares space with a minimart in the lot of a Citgo. Owner Tim McRae, who once upon a time ran a family oil business, thinks it’s fate. Whatever it is, it’s delicious.
WTF? Where’s the Food? recently moved from a food kiosk in an old Valero lot in Ewing. The WTF? signs are still up there, and residents are patiently awaiting his return. But until that time, they’ll have to make the quick trip a couple towns over if they’re craving any of the diverse cuisine WTF? dishes up on a daily basis.
McRae calls his menu “good old fun, eclectic comfort food.” The rest of us call it heaven.
McRae runs the business with his wife Lisa. The two founded WTF? in 2013 as a food truck, which they’ve since sold. But back then, they posted up in Downtown Trenton for lunch service and experimented with a variety of cuisines, adding (and sometimes removing) new options weekly.
“We made [a shrimp po‘ boy] for lunch one day, and we actually sold it to one customer,” McRae recalled. “The next day, five people came back and they wanted the shrimp po‘ boy, which wasn’t on the menu at the time, but we made it for them. So that was the day that we added the shrimp po‘ boy for good.”
The shrimp po‘ boy is just one of several WTF? staples, up there with General Tso’s wings (my favorite), a “Jerzey” pork roll sandwich, and hearty beef and chicken cheesesteaks. The McRae couple, who have been together for more than 30 years, aren’t afraid to switch things up every now and then.
Almost weekly, WTF? offers a special dessert—anything from a Mississippi Mud Cake to a limoncello mascarpone cake. Even special savory dishes make an appearance on occasion. Recently, WTF? sampled cheeseburger empanadas. Their newest addition to the permanent menu, however, is a chipotle citrus wing sauce, joining a list that includes Carolina tangy, garlic parm, hot honey garlic, buffalo, and General Tso’s.
The McRaes have incorporated much of themselves and their families into their menu. The two, both raised in the Trenton area, grew up around the dinner table, developing a love of food and cooking from their mothers. Today, Tim and Lisa McRae pour that same homemade love into each one of their menu items.
This year marks a decade of the WTF? Where’s the Food? name. The McRaes are elated to be able to share this landmark, their food, and a bit of their backgrounds with guests.
“We want to thank everybody who’s supported us for 10 years,” acknowledges Tim McRae, “and we look forward to another 10 years in the industry,” also sharing appreciation for long-time WTF? cook Keon Smith and aspiring managerial partner Joe Crozier.
“It has gone by very quick,” says Lisa McRae. “We’ve grown so much.” After a moment, she adds with a chuckle, “And now I need a ten-year vacation.”
In 2013, Tim and Lisa McRae took a risk starting a food truck business. With one successful family enterprise under their belt, they decided it was time—and necessary—to take on a second.
They hit the streets of our state’s capital with not much more than a plan and a decisive menu. Because of their determination, drive, and dedication to each other, the McRaes have fostered a revered food business in the Garden State. The brand doesn't represent just another eatery; it represents persistence and growth, and their menu is a testament to their loving families and WTF?’s humble beginnings. Ten years is just the beginning.
Read below for an exclusive Devour NJ interview with WTF? owners Tim and Lisa McRae, who discuss their upbringings, business, and, of course, food.
Tell us about pre-WTF Lisa.
Lisa McRae: I grew up in Trenton and Ewing. And I started dating Tim (McRae) right after school. We had originally met in junior high in Fisher (Middle School). We went to school together, graduated together, and then reconnected about a year after we graduated.
How did you both reconnect?
Tim McRae: We were actually just hanging out one night after high school, and we decided to go to Philly. I had a Thunderbird, and me, her, and two friends of ours drove down to South Street. That’s when we started building a relationship from there.
What was teenage, pre-WTF Tim like?
Lisa: How would I describe him? Stay away from him.
Lisa: Not for nothing, but Tim was bad news in high school. He had a reputation. Rumor had it he sold drugs… I’ve witnessed fights. He was like a rebel, with the graffiti artists drawing all over buildings in the area.
Tim: I was a little bit of a wild one. I grew up in Ewing Township. Originally, we lived in the North Trenton section of Ewing, and then when I was three years old, my dad moved us to Ewingville. So Ewingville is as deep into Ewing as you can go, and it’s actually two miles from this location right here (WTF?’s Pennington location). So we had a very big house, and I didn’t realize that we were well off until friends would come over and be like, “Oh man, you guys are rich.” We never looked at it that way. We just looked at it as we had a big family. We needed a big house.
How many siblings did you have?
Tim: All together there’s ten of us. I am next to the baby. I’m what they call the “knee baby” [laughs]. So that means second-to-last in our world.
My mom was very big on family. One thing I must say—one thing about old southern families—they want to keep the family together no matter what. There’s always going to be adversity. There’s always going to be issues, but at the end of the day, it’s a whole bunch of family love. My parents were from a little town called Dillon, South Carolina, and they were Pentecostal ministers as well. So love was in our house regardless.
How did they end up up here?
Tim: Well, that’s a funny story. They ended up here because of the industry. My dad was a sharecropper and a bootlegger, so he was always hustling always working as a farmer. He worked sunup to sundown.
So my parents started looking at towns up north to move to, and the first place, believe it or not, they looked at was Newark, New Jersey, because there was a lot of industry in Newark. But they settled on Trenton, New Jersey. At that time, Trenton was booming in the late ’40s, early ’50s. You had a whole bunch of industry here. That’s how we got the saying Trenton makes, the world takes. We made so many products that people aren’t even aware of. We made the wire for the Brooklyn Bridge.
So Trenton ended up being their new home, and my dad started working here, and when he got done working at three o’clock in the morning—because he was a farmer and was used to working—he would go and get another job.
One day he saw an ad in the paper for a janitorial floor waxing company, and he actually answered the ad, and they gave him 10 leads. They gave him a machine that he had to pay for. So out of the 10 leads, my dad got three of those jobs. Out of the three jobs that he got, he did such a good job that he started getting referrals off of that. So that’s how my parents started McRae Brothers Janitorial, which became McRae Brothers Fuel & Oil and all the other industries that McRae Brothers were into. That was the spark that started the McRae empire.
What was life like before WTF?
Lisa: Tim had Tim McRae Oil as a family business. I worked for a national nonprofit in Princeton. I was a payroll supervisor for 16 years, and then in 2015, I decided to leave that job to do WTF. We still had Tim McRae Oil, so we had two seasonal things that I could assist him with.
Can you talk a little bit about the role food had played in your life with your family?
Lisa: Well, my mom was a stay-at-home mom. And I just remember before I started school, my mom made three meals a day—breakfast, lunch, dinner. And then once I was in school, it was breakfast and dinner. We ate as a family, and I always saw her cooking. That was her way of, I guess, showing love.
Tim: There was no eating out at our house. Mom cooked in army pots. We’re talking black-eyed peas, a lot of southern cooking, a lot of rich comfort food that really just stuck to your ribs. Food has always played a major part in our lives, because it’s the thing that brought the family around the table. It’s what held our family together, you know, just like any family.
Nowadays, many people might grab their fo and go to their room. We weren’t allowed to do that. We had to sit down at the table and we had to have a conversation. You had to look at each other’s eyes and talk to each other and laugh and joke. You know, when you’re coming from a big loving family, food always plays a part. It was the glue that kept the family at the table, kept us talking and staying in touch with one another.
Do you have any specific fond memories?
Lisa: I mean, everything. My mom would make weird things [laughs]. Lamb chops were a big thing with my mom, but she also made rabbit. My mom has made frog. My mom has made snapper soup. All kinds of European-based stuff—cabbage and chicken cacciatore. My mom made so many different dishes. Her mother was a big cook, too. My grandmother and all my aunts were. My mom had mostly sisters—two brothers, seven sisters. So, on holidays, it was a cook fest [laughs].
What have you brought from your upbringing to WTF?
Tim: Oh, God [laughs]. Well, first of all, the love of food and the personability. When people come to WTF?, one thing we give is a personal touch. We want to talk to you. We want to get to know you. We want to converse with you. And we want to talk about the food. Did you like it? What did you like? What can we do better? So I think what we bring to WTF? is another conversation. Food should always have chatter and talk around it—when your mouth isn’t full [laughs].
So one thing we bring with WTF? is the love of community, the love of people, and just talking, man—just sitting down and doing what the dinner table was meant to do: bring families together.
What do you remember from when you both were coming up with the concept for WTF?
Lisa: Tim had the oil business (Tim McRae Oil), and it was seasonal. He needed something to do in the summer. He would work little jobs in the summer, but there was one summer when he didn’t work at all. And on TV, we were seeing that food trucks were becoming popular around that time. And I was like, “You need to get a food truck for the summer.” And I kept saying it. And he was like, “Yeah, you know, it costs money to do that.” So then finally, it happened in 2013.
Tim: I actually got the food truck through my oil company, because my banker was able to list it as a service truck. So when I went to pick the truck up—I had it built in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—I didn’t have a dime to my name. He wired the money to the company. They completed the truck, built the truck, and then I drove the truck back with no plates, nothing. All the cops and people riding by were giving thumbs up [laughs]. And I was worried if I made the right decision.
Then our first stop was at a gas station. It was the borderline between Florida and Georgia. My cousin Eric was with me. I went into the gas station to get something to drink. When I came out, there was a line at the truck. And that’s when I realized—the light went on in my brain, and I was like, “Oh, I did the right thing” [laughs]. I almost believed that that was fate, because that’s why somehow I’ve always been tied to gas stations ever since [laughs].
Tell us about some of the menu items.
Tim: Well, there’s our shrimp po‘ boy, a little ode to Louisiana and the south. It’s a sandwich that we started making in Downtown Trenton when we first got the food truck.
Everything really came about through having different tastes. Each week when we were downtown with the food truck, we’d have a different menu item. All the menu items have been derived from comfort food. We also have cheesesteaks, and now we have the oriental express and the seafood combo. We want to have something for everybody so that no one’s left out.
What else do you have going on separate from WTF?
Tim: I’ve been doing a lot of acting. Just recently I acquired an agent and a management company. I’m trying to focus more on acting and comedy. We have a short film that we just did called “Harmonica Killer” shot by Jay Gatson. Also, we appear in a comedy film coming up called Liquor Run. I think it’s going to be out in April or May, and that’s a feature film.
All photos and article: © 2023 by Devour NJ
Video: © 2023 by Gatson Media Productions