Former Marine brings classic carnival treats to the Valley

Story and photos by Samantha Linczyc

Video by Sydney Jaxtheimer

The oil sizzles in the fryer as the sweet smell of sugar fills the air. Mel Shtanko’s blend of flour, sugar and vanilla has to have the perfect consistency. As he distributes the batter evenly in the oil, a mouth watering funnel cake is soon to come alive.

At 14 years old, Shtanko got his first job in the food industry working for a catering company in Woodstock, where he worked for about four years. During his last two years of high school, Shtanko took cooking courses at Triplett Tech in Mount Jackson, VA. His experience in the culinary arts began to grow, along with his true passion for cooking.

After high school, Shtanko joined the Marines as a cook. He then cooked for fine dining restaurants in Miami before coming back to Virginia. Freedom Funnel Cakes opened in April 2018.

“I came here and I realized the only time you can get funnel cakes is one time a year during a fair or a carnival, so I decided why don’t I start offering funnel cakes and fried oreos seven days a week just on the side of the road,” Shtanko says.

Freedom Funnel Cakes is currently located next to an ice cream shop called Sugar Shack in Woodstock and sells a variety of dessert items including fried oreos, fried twinkies, apple fritters and their most popular item, powdered sugar funnel cakes. They offer about 10 toppings at a time so everyone can customize their funnel cake to their liking. From Reese’s Pieces to Fruity Pebbles, Freedom Funnel Cakes has it all.

Shtanko previously sold funnel cakes in Harrisonburg for about six months but moved his truck back to Woodstock to be closer to family.

“That’s the beauty of being mobile, we can go anywhere we want or need to,” says Shtanko. “We’re able to follow the money.”

Karen Weatherholtz is a long time family friend of Shtanko and typically referred to as “Mama Karen.” She believes that Shtanko has finally found true happiness by venturing out to find his dream. She says Shtanko’s funnel cakes are the best of the best.

“Mel’s are just special, because he is special,” Weatherholtz says. She’s proud of his talented cooking skills and praises him for being so good at what he does.

Sales range anywhere from as little as five customers a day to over 100 people. Shtanko’s funnel cakes are not just for kids, as people of all ages travel from near and far to taste the sugary desserts.

“Anywhere from kids that are only a year or two old to people who are in their seventies and eighties, who remember getting funnel cakes at the fair when they were younger,” says Shtanko. “It really brings back childhood memories for a lot of people as well.”

Casey Rubenstein, Shtanko’s girlfriend, acts as the cashier and takes orders. She likes to connect with customers who come from all around the country.

“Doing something like this is really interesting and different,” says Rubenstein. “It’s a whole new experience being able to pick up your business and go wherever in the world you feel like.”

Rubenstein and Shtanko have been set up in Woodstock for a few months now.

Freedom Funnel Cakes is typically open seven days a week, unless hired for a private events like corporate functions, baby showers, birthday parties and weddings. Shtanko says they typically cater to “really any events where funnel cakes can be needed.”

Shtanko’s former military background gave him the inspiration for the name of the food truck.

“The word freedom to me really means a lot,” says Shtanko.

Shtanko is proud to be free to create his own lifestyle, hours and events. Freedom Funnel Cakes gives him the freedom to be creative and have his own business, which not everyone in the world is able to do.

He says, “Love is the key ingredient to the perfect funnel cake.”

Contact Samantha at slinczyc@dukes.jmu.edu.