Truck Stop Eats
Food trucks are on a roll. Entrepreneurs are expanding the possibilities beyond hot dogs and ethnic food, offering high-quality takes on pizza, cupcakes, farm-to-table, vegan and vegetarian fare. Independent-minded chefs go mobile for the sense of freedom and lower overhead than a brick-and-mortar establishment offers.
Food lovers delight in the eat-on-the-street-on-your-feet experience. Not only are food trucks easy on the wallet, they’re fun. No wonder fans follow them. “When people come up to the truck, they see the cuteness and then they taste the cupcake. You brighten their day. They smile from the gut,” says Todd Rowe, co-owner of the Cupcake Truck. Todd and his wife, Marsha, sell $2 treats like Red Velvet Jones, Chocolate Ruin and Salted Caramel from a 1968 Grumman Olson truck that parks in New Haven.
These days, food trucks can be found on city streets, in parks, at farmers’ markets, and at private parties and corporate events. They are hired for weddings. And even funerals. Funerals? “Happy funerals, where they wanted to remember that person in a fun way,” says Rowe, who’s catered a few. Another cupcake truck, The Cupcake Brake, “bounces around” the Hartford area, says Timothy John, business partner to Larry DeNorio, who left a career in financial planning a year ago to start the mobile business. Most of the time, Cupcake Brake parks at State House Square, sometimes it’s in Bushnell Park, other times in Middletown. On Sundays June through October, it docks at the Coventry Farmer’s Market. Like most of the newer food trucks, Cupcake Brake uses social media—websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter—to let customers know where to find the truck each day and what’s on the menu.
“We don’t print our menu,” says Ami Beach Shadle, co-owner of the Gmonkey Truck with her husband Mark Shadle, chef and co-owner of It’s Only Natural vegetarian restaurant in Middletown (the two businesses are not affiliated). Gmonkey brings organic raw, vegan and vegetarian fare from “farm2street” (so reads their tag line) in Hartford County. “It varies every day,” Ami Shadle says of the menu, whose biggest seller is a black bean, chipotle, brown-rice veggie burger served on homemade bread baked in Shadle Farm’s commercial kitchen. The completely vegan burger is dressed with pesto and “nano-aise,” made of Bridge tofu, handmade from non-genetically modified soy. “We’re redefining the stereotypical conception of fast food in an innovative, green, sustainable and organic way,” says Shadle.
Contemporary food trucks keep it fun with songs on their websites and witty posts on their blogs. “And don’t forget,” reads a recent blog post for the one-year-old Torrington-based Rocket Fine Street Food, “that the rocket is equipped with the latest telephonic technology; 860.689.5585 entered into any current device will put you into direct communication with us, even in deep space, and you can place your order for pickup.” Co-owners Joseph Meneguzzu and Patricia Natter-Meneguzzu create simple, made-from-scratch food using high-quality and local ingredients. Customer favorites include the all-natural (no hormones or antibiotics) cheeseburger topped with Colby and Jack cheese and homemade green chili sauce. It’s served on a Collinsville Baking Co. challah roll. Rocket’s grilled cheese achieves what Meneguzzu describes as “the perfect balance of buttery crunch of toasted bread and melted cheese goo factor” from a blend of Grûyère, mozzarella and Vermont Cheddar.
Grilled cheese sandwiches are the specialty of The Cheese Truck in New Haven, which Jason and Tom Sobocinski of Caseus, the cheese shop and bistro, started a year-and-a-half ago. “Our restaurant is not on the low end,” says Jason, “so the truck allowed us to create something more accessible and lower-priced for people who don’t want linens and table service.” The truck’s customers are younger than Caseus Bistro’s. And grilled cheese is “complete comfort food,” he says. The “buttery, crispy, melty” blend of Provolone, Swiss, Comté, Grûyère, Gouda and Cheddar on sourdough bread is served with a side of cornichons and grainy mustard. Add-ons add a dollar to the $5 tab. The most popular is applewood bacon. The Cheese Truck’s location changes daily except on Saturdays, when it parks in the Farmer’s Market in Wooster Square, and on Sundays, when it’s at the Edgewood Farmer’s Market.
Food trucks are as much about people as they are about food. “It surprised us how great and very friendly the interactions with the customers have been. It’s one-on-one,” says Patricia Natter-Meneguzzu. In Stamford’s Jackie Robinson Park, Mexican food truck El Charitto has a cult following. “I think I’ve met people from every country,” says Alexandra Terron, who owns and operates the business with her husband, “We get everyone from landscapers to UBS bankers.” El Charrito’s signature dish is huaraches, masa (fried cornmeal) dough filled with the customers’ choice of salsa, meat, beans and cheese.
Business is so good, many food truck owners are expanding operations. The Cupcake Brake has added The Pie Brake, a truck offering a slice of pie in a cup (all their products are baked off-site), and they plan to add a pizza truck. Doug Coffin, owner of Big Green Truck Pizza, started baking pizzas in an Italian wood-burning oven installed into an antique 1946 International Harvester in 2003. Today he has four trucks, serving thin-crust pizzas topped with traditional and creative ingredients, like mashed potatoes, caramelized onions and bacon, at catered events and on Wednesdays through October at the farmer’s market at Robert Treat Farm in Milford. In Westport, the Skinny Pines Pizza truck can be found Thursdays at the farmer’s market on Imperial Avenue. Owner Jeff Borofky recently expanded his offerings—in addition to pizza he now offers s’mores baked in his wood-fired oven until they’re warm and gooey. They’re made with organic whole wheat graham crackers, local Red Bee honey marshmallows and organic, stone-ground Taza chocolate.
The Cupcake Truck, which opened a store in the Arcade Mall in downtown Bridgeport last October, will add a second truck in the fall. Rowe happily notes that unlike his ’68 truck, the new circa 1975 truck has power steering and power brakes. El Charrito’s popularity (and perhaps the conditions in the truck—“when it gets hot it gets really hot, and when it gets cold it gets really cold,” says Terron) led the owners to open a brick-and-mortar take-out in Greenwich last January.
Are food trucks here to stay? Todd Rowe, for one, believes they’re more than a flash in the pan. “We’re creative people who love good food and do a lot of things to make people smile.”