By Lisa Steuer
A few years ago, most people would have defined a “food truck” as a vehicle parked on the side of the road that primarily sells hot dogs and is mostly appealing for the convenience it offers.
But today, many food truck operators around the country — and now, Long Island — are specialists in their profession. They are experienced chefs who have worked in kitchens for years, have food management experience, or who grew up learning about and appreciating mom’s authentic cooking. They are restaurant owners, wedding and party caterers and seasoned cooks and bakers who all have at least one thing in common — a passion and love for food and cooking.
Burgers by 25A
Patrick Trovato, a graduate of Port Jefferson high school and a current resident of Miller Place, has operated the Inferno Roadside Grill food truck since 2011. Located in Mount Sinai in the Agway parking lot, the Inferno Roadside Grill has built a following solely through word of mouth, said Trovato. Menu items include burgers, grilled chicken wraps, wings and more, and Trovato said he buys all the ingredients every morning, including the beef, which is ground fresh.
“I’ve only been able to do two things in my life — sales and cook,” said Trovato, who previously owned a New York City restaurant with his father and also worked in insurance.
Eventually, Trovato decided to leave the insurance industry and go back to his passion of cooking. He purchased an old camper for $500, and it took about four-and-a-half months to transform it into the food truck that exists today. Trovato did all his research, remodeled it, installed a commercial kitchen, made sure he met the proper codes and opened with help from his business partners — his girlfriend, and his friend Kevin, who owns Smithtown House of Vacuums.
“People can’t afford to risk or lose hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a restaurant. So the food truck is a small capital investment, comparatively,” said Trovato. “With a food truck, you can just be great at one thing. … A food truck just lets you be a specialist.”
The Inferno Roadside Grill is open year round, Monday through Saturday, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., weather permitting. This snowy winter, however, made it rough — from Thanksgiving through March, Trovato was not able to be open for a full week.
Looking forward, Trovato plans to open the Inferno Roadside Grill restaurant in Sound Beach by summer. The restaurant, which will be located at 245 Echo Avenue, will have the same menu currently available on the truck, expanded to include specialty “regional” burgers — burgers that are popular in different parts of the country — and possibly a Southern-fried chicken menu. When the restaurant opens, the truck will remain in operation, but the menu will most likely be pared down to strictly burgers and fries, while the other menu items will still be found at the restaurant.
“I have a special sauce on my burger,” said Trovato. “When you take the fresh ground beef that’s been seared, seasoned, and you add the fresh crisp lettuce, tomato, onion, then you add the sauce, it’s a really unique flavor profile.”
Puerto Rico on Long Island
Roy and Kathleen Pelaez opened their Island Empanada restaurant in May 2011. There are now two locations, in Medford and Ronkonkoma, and two years ago the Island Empanada food truck opened.
Previously, the truck operated during the week, from May through October, off William Floyd Parkway in Shirley, but at press time, the location for this year was not yet determined. The Pelaezes also bring the truck to different events all over Suffolk and Nassau, including fairs, festivals, private parties and even weddings.
“We’re very unique,” said Roy Pelaez. ”And the food is Puerto Rican style, and there’s not a lot of Puerto Rican restaurants on Long Island.”
His mother and father were both born and raised in Puerto Rico. His wife, Kathleen Pelaez, works as a social worker in addition to working in the restaurants, and his daughters — one of whom is getting her master’s degree and the other her bachelor’s — also help out when they can. “My mom taught me [to cook] and I was able to then teach the other cooks at both restaurants,” said Roy Pelaez, who also worked in and managed restaurants for more than 20 years before opening his own. “It’s the same food that I made in my kitchen, and I was able to just expand the menus to feed a larger amount of people, so it’s really home-cooked food.”
The Pelaezes opened the food truck to make attending festivals and other events much easier for them.
‘Long Island is behind … the rest of the country. Food trucks seem to be sweeping the nation right now. You can really get some good food — inexpensive, hand-held, quick and easy. And now, Suffolk and Nassau are starting to see it, and restaurant owners and entrepreneurs are trying to jump on it.’ — Roy Pelaez of Island Empanada
Since opening two years ago, the truck has done well, said Roy Pelaez, and even though the truck does make things easier, it is still a lot of work, he pointed out. “People just think they’re going to get a food truck and make a million dollars. It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “But the expenses are different. … I don’t have the big utility bills.”
The Island Empanada restaurants include 26 varieties of empanadas, and the truck includes the 12 most popular varieties, as well as rice, beans, sweet plantains, potato balls, and flan for dessert.
“Long Island is behind a little bit the rest of the country. Food trucks seem to be sweeping the nation right now,” he said. “You can really get some good food — inexpensive, hand-held, quick and easy. And now, Suffolk and Nassau are starting to see it, and restaurant owners and entrepreneurs are trying to jump on it.”
The Mobile Bakery
Jess Kennaugh, owner of Blondie’s Bake Shop in Centerport, found her love for baking at a young age. “It was what I did for fun after school,” she said.
Then in high school, her first job was at A Rise Above Bake Shop in Huntington, her hometown. Kennaugh eventually went away to school, got a master’s degree in education and planned to become a teacher. “I just always kept going back to the bakery. I couldn’t shake it.”
Blondie’s Bake Shop and the truck, which is used solely for events like fairs, weddings, caterings, etc., both opened in December of 2011. “I knew that food trucks were becoming more popular in the city and in places like Austin and D.C. and San Diego. So I figured that it was only a matter of time before that happened on Long Island and I wanted to be a part of it.”
The truck has a full commercial kitchen, and in addition to the regular baked goods found in the bakery, there are waffles made to order on the truck — with berries and whipped cream, or chicken and waffles, for instance — as well as grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and even a “macaroni and cheese grilled cheese.”
“It’s restaurant quality food in a laid-back atmosphere,” said Kennaugh, about the appeal of food trucks. “It makes fancier food more approachable.”
At the shop, the most popular item is a lemon berry scone, said Kennaugh, but on the truck a favored item is the s’mores pie — which is a little individual pie with a graham cracker crust, chocolate pudding and toasted marshmallow.
“I think the people can get a sense of our enthusiasm for our product,” said Kennaugh. “I have a really young, excited, creative staff, and that energy is contagious. And I think our product is quality; it’s really thoughtfully made and I think that shows. “
Compared to the bakery, the items on the truck are “a little more indulgent.”
“At the bakery, we sell granola and yogurt and egg sandwiches, so there are ways to get around splurging on what you’re going to eat,” said Kennaugh. “The stuff on the truck is much more indulgent — cheeses and bacon, and we really kind of go crazy with ourselves over there.”
This will be Blondie’s third season. And while Kennaugh was still working on the truck’s schedule at the time of this interview, she said she’s hoping she’ll have the truck out three or four days a week through the last week in October.
“We’re pretty excited because we’re being sought out for private events and more obscure events,” she said.
The Mobile Chef
Steven Mahoney of Amityville has operated his mobile catering business, Iron Mobile Chef, for two years.
“I’ve been in the food industry my whole life, since I was a little kid making pizza,” said Mahoney. He owned a pork and gourmet food store for about 10 years, and also worked as a private chef on the East End of Long Island for about four years before getting into the food truck business.
“The food truck is a new, fun thing — it’s really great,” said Mahoney. “I did a lot of off-the-premise catering before I had the truck, and now it’s just like an extension — a kitchen I bring everywhere.”
Mahoney attends private parties and events as well as festivals all over Long Island, so the truck never stays in the same place. For bigger parties, Mahoney will bring a staff that includes family members to help out — brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and more. “It’s like a mom and pop store on wheels,” he said.
The unique aspect of Mahoney’s truck is that the menu varies wherever he goes, depending on what’s wanted or appropriate at the particular event. “I can go from hot dogs and hamburgers to lobster tails and filet mignon,” Mahoney said. Items like Philly cheesesteaks and sausage and peppers are usually made for fairs, for instance. At the time of this interview, Mahoney had just finished doing a breakfast party.
“These awesome chefs that are dying to open their own place and they have a passion for cooking and it’s just a little too expensive to get their own restaurant — it’s like their dream come true, but a little bit cheaper,” said Mahoney, about the rise in popularity of food trucks. “It’s a lot more work than a restaurant, but if you have the passion for it, that’s what makes it worth it … I love it and I enjoy what I do. I can work 16-, 17-hour days … and I really love it.”
For those interested in renting Iron Mobile Chef for an event, Mahoney can be reached at (516) 351-5176.