The Culinary Convoy
There was a time when the best “hot” deals that came out of a truck involved a television, stereo or carton of smokes that “fell off the back” of said vehicle. The idea of actually selling food from one is not exactly a new concept. The evolution of the American diner’s palate, the increased pace of the world and the recession of 2008 all combined to give rise to the gourmet food truck. Once limited to street carts selling “dirty water dogs” and the unfortunately named “Roach Coaches” that have been construction site staples since the 1960s, the food truck has undergone a transformation, and Cape Cod has a number of mobile options for people to try delicious and inventive cuisine.
Like most creators, Charles Goodnight never lived to see the massive evolution of his invention. In 1866, Goodnight, better known as Chuck, would drive his wagon out to feed cattlemen and wagon trains negotiating the old west.
Goodnight may have started the mobile food movement, but he carried basic foodstuffs that can keep for long periods of time, like salted beef, cornmeal and coffee. Even the later canteen trucks that fed hungry workers carried little more than pre-made and packaged sandwiches, candy and beverages with the possibility of a random apple or banana. Many in the food truck community (and there is a rather large community across the country) point to Raul Martinez and his King Taco truck as the first to offer fresh, made-to-order food when he opened his converted ice cream truck on the streets of East Los Angeles in 1974. The first “gourmet” truck of its kind is widely considered to be Roy Choi’s Kogi truck, selling Korean barbecue in L.A. in 2008.
Today, after a steady march across the country, food trucks are ubiquitous in cities of all sizes and have stretched out to the suburbs and beyond. In the warmer months, Cape Cod’s fleet of food purveyors offers a wide breadth of choices—from traditional Southeast Asian fare, smoked beef barbecue, a simple hot dog, or even a Kobe beef hot dog.
The reasons for opening a food truck are as varied as the menus they offer. Emerson Breneman of the High Tide food truck wanted to begin a cooking career by offering authentic Southeast Asian cuisine he’s grown to love from his many travels to Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. The Truro native has worked in the restaurant industry since he was 18 years old, but mainly in the front of the house. Breneman is now following the adage, “if you want something cooked right, cook it yourself.” Many restaurants that specialize in Southeast Asian fare alter—or Americanize—menu items to make them sweeter or less spicy than the original.
“We stay true to the flavor profiles that you’d find in Asia,” Emerson points out. The Green Papaya Salad is crunchy, sour and spicy and is an unusual find on Cape Cod. The Chicken Pad Thai is the best seller, but the Hat Yai-style fried chicken and Banh Mi sandwiches all sell very well. Located in the parking lot of Chequessett Chocolate on Highland Road in Truro, High Tide Kitchen is actually owned by the chocolate business, and Emerson leased it for the 2017 summer season. Emerson explains, “They wanted it to be an incubator for new ideas and young chefs.” Mission accomplished.
The current food truck movement really took off in around 2009, as people were still reeling from the economic downturn of the year earlier and were looking for far more affordable ways to open a business. “You can get a food truck up and running for 20 to 30 grand,” says Jason O’Toole of Pizza Barbone in Hyannis. “Unlike a restaurant where you need a couple hundred grand!” So it was for O’Toole and his wife Ali, and a mobile pizza oven made it easier to get their feet wet. While working as a personal chef aboard a yacht, O’Toole walked into a restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina that featured a wood-fired oven. It also included a wood-fired pizza oven on a trailer that they were looking to sell. After seven years on the high seas, O’Toole purchased the oven in the fall of 2009 and headed north. “I had events lined up before I made the first pizza!” he laughs. So, how long did it take to get the hang of making the pies? “The first event was an equestrian show that was five days long,” he remembers. “Three hundred fifty pizzas a day for five days. I got a crash course!” It definitely helped make the transition to a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant easier. “From cooking at farmers’ markets, the clientele already knew us,” O’Toole says. The Main Street eatery opened in Hyannis in 2012 and has enjoyed continued success. In addition to the restaurant, Pizza Barbone operates two mobile pizza ovens that work up to ten parties a weekend. “Having your own kitchen that can support the trucks (or trailers) with all the prep work that’s needed is huge,” O’Toole states.
That’s one of the reasons why Jaime and Christian Sparrow opened Sunbird in Lowell Square on Route 6A in Orleans—to help sustain their thriving food truck that was located along the roadside of Route 6 in Wellfleet. The Sparrows met as kids on the Cape but found themselves in San Francisco and looking to return home. A friend of the Sparrows, farmer Dave DeWitt of Dave’s Greens in Truro, knew of a local fisherman who had a food truck and was looking to sell it. “We had six great seasons with the truck,” Jaime recalls. “We wouldn’t have the café without it.” The food truck took the summer of 2017 off due to the expanded hours at the café. The Sparrows and partners, Garrett Smythe and Karen Densmore, have added a dinner service to their very popular breakfast and lunch offerings. The menu board at Sunbird is really an extension of what Jaime and Christian were doing with the truck. “It’s a similar menu,” Jaime points out. “I was naïve in thinking we were going to change the menu of the truck every day!” she laughs. The fish tacos and pork sandwich proved to be the staples that are still offered at the café along with other items, that Jaime says can’t be done in a truck. Reports of the Sunbird food truck’s demise are exaggerated, however. “Oh, it’ll be back,” Jaime reports. “We’re just not sure how and where.” She gets wistful as she adds, “that’s where our roots are.”
The evolution of Tammy Russell’s The Pineapple Caper took a similar route. The truck was purchased in Connecticut from a gentleman who used to sell Philly cheese steak sandwiches, and the plan was to use it as a catering tool in Western Massachusetts, where she was living at the time. “It was hit or miss out there,” Russell recalls. Having moved to Cape Cod, Russell got the truck on the road last May, and business is much better. “Private parties do well,” she states. “It’s something different to do when catering an event.” The not-soprivate parties are doing very well for Pineapple Caper, as well. Russell’s unique spin on the traditional grilled cheese is a crowd favorite at events such as the Annual Osterville Village Day and Habitat For Humanity Cape Cod’s fishing derby awards celebration. Russell even set up shop at Cape Cod Hospital while its kitchen was undergoing a renovation. The grilled cheese sandwiches feature ingredients like buffalo chicken and pulled pork, and the signature Pineapple Caper sandwich that consists of Canadian bacon, Monterey Jack cheese and grilled pineapple. Much like Sunbird in Orleans, The Pineapple Caper truck begat an expansion into the world of brick and mortar with the opening of The Pineapple Caper Café on Wianno Avenue in Osterville village, offering breakfast and lunch daily.
Starting small with a food truck and building into a full-service restaurant seems to be the logical growth path. Why would the owner of an already established and exceedingly popular restaurant bother with opening a food truck in addition to the already hectic schedule that running a restaurant brings? “We did it a little backwards,” laughs Jennifer Ramler. Jennifer and her husband Doug own and operate Harwichport’s Cape Sea Grille. The Ramlers wondered: What else can we do? “We’ve got four kids to put through school, and you don’t get rich in the restaurant business,” Jennifer states. “Opening another brick and mortar would be a lot and Doug would feel the need to be in both places.”
In April of 2013, the Ramlers purchased what would become the Salt Block Food Truck, offering a fun menu of tacos that is different than, but inspired by, the originality of the Cape Sea Grille. Unlike Mexican-style tacos, Salt Block’s versions feature fish, chicken or pork with lots of pickled vegetables. The menu also consists of street corn, gazpacho and the popular Cape Sea Grille Caesar salad with crispy polenta croutons that are the greatest croutons known to man (at least this man). After Labor Day, the truck decamps from its Main Street location in Harwichport and can be found at fall festivals around the Cape. As for the name “Salt Block”? It’s a nod to a time when salt was as valuable as gold and Roman soldiers where thought to have been paid, at least partly, in salt. This led to the familiar phrase for a hard worker to be “worth his salt”. From that, you have the tagline for the Salt Block Food Truck: Food that’s worth its weight.
A similar story can be found on the grounds of Truro Vineyards, with the Crush Pad food truck. The truck’s owner, Eric Jansen, owns not one but two very successful restaurants: Blackfish (Truro) and Local 186 (Provincetown). Jansen enlisted chef Brian Erskine to help make Crush Pad a must when on the outer Cape. Erskine has his own exceptional restaurant from which he has taken a step back from the day-to-day operations. Hanger B Eatery, located at the Chatham Airport, continues to be a much-sought-out destination for breakfast and lunch. “Some days we’ll do up to a thousand eggs,” Erskine says. “After eight years, I needed a break from the eggs!” He found that respite in Crush Pad where he creates a new menu daily, along with some favorites. “We’ll usually have some form of tacos on there, and the hot dog,” Brian reports with his booming baritone voice. The hot dog is made of Kobe beef with house made green tomato relish called chow chow with cabbage, jalapeño, sugar, turmeric, apple cider vinegar and spices that’ll make the use of ketchup and mustard unnecessary. The blend of flour and corn makes the tacos both crispy and pliable. Having Blackfish just around the corner allows Brian to use leftovers from the previous night’s dinner preparations. Truro Vineyards offers other uncommon benefits that make Crush Pad’s menu so unique. A mixture of juniper berries, oranges and spices that were used in the distillation of South Hollow Spirit’s Dry Line Gin was recently used to cure salmon for gravlax.
There are many more food trucks on Cape Cod that focus on catering to private parties and events. Hiring a food truck to feed your guests has grown in popularity, whether it’s for a birthday party, wedding or fundraiser for a non-profit organization. No matter the size of an event, there’s one truck that can handle it all…the Meat Commander. Dennis Public Market’s Andrew Crosby launched the Meat Commander five years ago as an extension of his store on Route 6A in Dennis Village. “People get the same quality of food from the truck as they would at the store,” he states. The store, like the aforementioned restaurants, acts to support the truck and Crosby’s other venture, Dennis Public Market’s Sur fside Grill at Corporation Beach. “I’m my own wholesaler and supplier,” he points out. Everything is made from scratch, right down to grinding their own hamburger meat. The 32-foot-long, 420-square-foot behemoth can easily handle crowds of up to 250 people and beyond. “We cook burgers and dogs for 1800 bikers that take part in Big Nick’s Ride For The Fallen every year,” Andrew proudly reports. The concession-style trailer has been outfitted to be able to produce anything that a client could want. With Crosby’s catering liquor license, he can realize an important goal: to be different from everybody else.
Add in the familiar chimes of ice cream trucks that crisscross the Cape in the summer, and the number of local trucks swells greatly. In one case, the progression for one entrepreneur went from ice cream shop . . . to ice cream truck . . . to ice cream truck cooking crepes made to order. Mary DeBartolo of The Local Scoop added an ice cream truck to help advertise her Orleans shop five years ago. It not only helped promote the store, it has become a fixture at farmers’ markets and Truro Vineyards, selling the tasty Cape Cod Pops. The “Pop Mobile” now works to supply the 15 retail outlets that carry the line of frozen treats featuring local ingredients. Partner Peter Kelly helped add to the offerings by retrofitting the truck to be able to cook fresh hot crepes to order. Whenever possible, DeBartolo and Kelly use ingredients from the farmers in attendance at the markets. It’s a practice that helps out the vendors. Kelly explains, “We’ll use items from the farmers, and their sales will go up because of it.” Sometimes, people need a flavorsome example of ways to use market items. The Local Scoop’s fleet of vehicles is growing, too. Along with the Pop Mobile, they now have a Pop Cycle and even a boat . . . the first step to a foodie flotilla.
There is even a food truck serving up life lessons along with tasty tube steaks in Hyannis. In 2013, Todd and Beth Marcus of Cape Cod Beer purchased an old hot dog truck on Craigslist for $5000. It was a way for their then-14-year-old son Jacob and four other kids to experience their first summer job and learn valuable business skills. Cape Cod Dawgs is located in the parking lot of the brewery, under the supervision of the staff, but make no mistake about it: the kids are responsible for running the business. “The kids handle everything,” Beth asserts. “They’re responsible for what they sell.” That means all the prep work (including chopping a lot of onions), making sure proper food orders are submitted (to Beth), and reconciling both cash and credit card receipts at the end of the day. The kids also set the schedule and work through any conflicts that may arise to keep the truck staffed throughout the summer months. What started as a lark has just wrapped up its fifth year in business. While Jacob has moved on to other work, younger brother Harrison has been on board for the past three years. “It’s a great summer job, and there’s not that many of them out there for young kids,” Beth explains. Some kids come back for another year but most don’t. Even that one year can give someone valuable experience and confidence going forward.
Food trucks have been the focus of television shows and even a movie (2014’s Chef starring Jon Favreau), and the Zagat Guide began reviewing them in 2011. The basic concept is well over a century old, and this revitalized movement has been growing for decades. Having found places to park on the Cape (no easy feat), we get to enjoy the creativity as it continues to evolve and blaze new trails as chefs utilize their trucks as incubators for fresh ideas.
This is just a sampling of the mobile meal options across Cape Cod. They come in all shapes, sizes and menus. Whether dashing around on the job or meandering about while exploring the Cape, you no longer need to sacrifice quality for convenience. You can have it all. You just need to keep your eyes and nose open to the road ahead. A great meal might be just around the corner.