On a corner of Emeryville’s office park, a generator hums fueling an aluminum-sided truck serving up hot food. It’s not your typical fast-food truck though: On one side of the grill are patty melts made with ground Niman ranch beef on marbled rye, with swiss cheese, caramelized onions and a secret sauce. On the other are “mac and cheese cakes” — balls of macaroni and cheese, breaded with panko, grilled and topped with a gremolata.
The chef who created this menu is Jon Kosorek, who started up this truck—Jon’s Street Eats—last August. An Oakland resident, Kosorek believes in using only the highest quality ingredients and makes everything from scratch except the bread. “I try to be proud of everything I do,” he says. “There’s no style of food that’s a favorite of mine. I just try to do good food all the time.”
As clients steadily file by, Matt Butler—one of Kosorek’s cooks—doesn’t have a moment to spare. He’s salting burgers, grilling asparagus and drizzling salad dressing over greens. “This is a hybrid between a restaurant and catering,” says Butler. “Here we bring the whole kitchen to you.”
Jon’s Street Eats is one of several food trucks serving non-traditional food that have popped up in the East Bay over the past year. There’s also a cupcake truck (CupKates), a Korean barbecue taco truck (Seoul on Wheels) and Roli Roti, which sells rotisserie meats including duck and lamb. Their loyal customers find out their constantly changing locations and menus through social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and Yelp.
Robert Manson, a customer who first found Jon’s Street Eats on Twitter, shows me a special Twitter feed he’s made on his iPhone that he named “Emery Eats” — the feed gives him all the different food trucks’ updates. “I’m kinda obsessed,” he said. In addition to the mac and cheese cakes, Manson had ordered the grilled local asparagus layered on sliced prosciutto and topped with shaved grana cheese, a soft egg and a sprinkle of Apollo olive oil.
Another customer, Linda Ganfield, says she doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter. “I found it just by walking by and going ‘Oh, what’s that?’” she says. She patiently waited by the side of the truck as Butler spread caramelized onions on the grill to heat up for her patty melt. It’s true — this truck is hard to miss with the smells wafting out from down the street, people crowding around and the giant stenciled siding that reads “Jon’s Street Eats.”
Why are culinary enthusiasts like Kosorek making food on trucks rather than in restaurants? Kosorek says that he has two reasons: He wants to provide people with food they normally couldn’t get at such a low price, as well as to challenge himself in his own cooking by changing the menu all the time and still making the food taste restaurant-caliber. “There’s not a lot of places where you can get hand-pulled mozzarella,” he says. “I would never be able to do a hot dog cart with just boiled hot dogs. I’d go crazy.”
A typical day for Kosorek starts around 6:00 a.m. and ends at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. For him, it’s a labor of love. “Running this cart, contrary to popular belief, is more expensive than if I had a little sandwich shop,” he says. In the winter months when he is the only one working, it costs him $8,000 per month to stay in business and in the summer months, with employees, costs can range as high as $12,000. But, he says, it’s not about the money.
Kosorek has always been interested in food. He got his start washing dishes in a restaurant in upstate New York, where he watched cooks do everything from pull their own strudel to make sourdough bread with their own starters. By the time he graduated high school, he knew he wanted to be a chef. After being formally trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Kosorek moved to northern California and has been bouncing around restaurants and catering companies in the area ever since. A couple years ago, he decided he wanted to open his own restaurant, but the economy tanked and he couldn’t find investors, so he started researching mobile food trucks.
It took him over six months to get off the ground—finding the right local vendors, compostable packaging and vending permits. “The first idea was to bump around Oakland from Rockridge to Lake Shore,” he says, but the city of Oakland’s permitting process doesn’t allow vendors to stay in one spot for more than half and hour. So for now, he parks on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland only on Saturday nights and is in Emeryville and Alameda the other days of the week.
For the first eight months Kosorek ran the truck alone; now he has two employees and another one starting in just a few weeks. Over the course of the last year, Kosorek has learned that cooking in a truck can be very different than in a restaurant. For one thing, he said he had to amend his menu and not do as many far-out recipes in order to appease to a wider audience. He also learned to take the weather into consideration. “This week I know it’s going to be rainy and thunderstormy,” he says. “I need to make something that’s warm and comfort food—I’m not gonna run a chilled pea soup with seared scallops. I’m gonna run a meatball sub and asparagus with half an egg.”
It’s this attention to recipes, weather and the best ingredients that keeps his clients coming back for more. Manson, who comes twice a week, says, “I don’t eat meat and he’s got very good veggie options. And, there’s really good desert here. My favorite is the butterscotch pudding.”
Ganfield’s favorite is the seared Ahi tuna on a roll. “He only does it every few weeks, so I have to keep coming to check and see if he has it,” she says. “He also does a lot of soft tacos, like pork belly tacos. A lot of thought goes into it.”
Eventually, Kosorek would still like to open up his own restaurant. But, that doesn’t mean he’ll ditch the truck. “I want to find a restaurant location where I can still operate the cart,” he says, “but not under the gun, when it’s 30 degrees and hailing out.”
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