Meet the Grill 'Em All Truck: Burgers That Rock on the Road
Is there anything more rock and roll than hitting the road with a bunch of people and facing new crowds of fans every day with the goal of giving them their fill of the great stuff you've got to offer?
That's how Matt Chernus and Ryan Harkins of Los Angeles' Grill 'Em All Truck approached the Food Network's Great Food Truck Race series, in which seven "nouveau" gourmet food trucks cross the country serving new fans in new cities. One truck is eliminated each week on their way from the west to the east coast and in pursuit of the cash prize...and the glory.
Chernus and Harkins were approached by the Food Network to participate in the show. We were both totally on the fence about doing it," explains Chernus. "Knowing there was the potential we would be away from our clientele for like, a month, month and a half." Ultimately though, he describes, the potential reward was bigger than the risk. "I think that what really drew me to do it personally was that I looked at it like being on tour with the band again. If we don't do this, we potentially miss out on the chance of a lifetime to drive around the country in our taco truck." Adds Harkins, "Slinging burgers."
And, oh, their burgers. Big 7-oz creations topped with a wild array of inventive toppings with fitting names in tribute to some of their favorite heavy metal performers, like the Dee Snider, which includes peanut butter, jelly, sriracha, and bacon. Oozing purple and red, what else would befit the onstage persona of the Twisted Sister rocker?
Not everything makes it onto the menu, though the Grill 'Em All guys have fun experimenting to see what weekly specials can be added to the lineup of about six regular burgers. A deep-fried burger patty topped with a corndog was sampled at home, but was a bit too artery-clogging to make the menu. Naming the burgers in tribute to rock stars, songs, and bands beloved by Chernus and Harkins is part of the fun, too. They describe the Paul Baloff, named for the late Exodus singer who had a rep for being a "hearty drinker, big dude, and party animal," they say, which seemed a perfect fit for their creation of swiss cheese, dijon mustard pickles, 1/3lb pastrami, and a fried egg. "It's a sloppy mess of a burger," laughs Harkins.
Though the dazzle of the toppings might distract you from thinking about what goes in the burger, that could well be by design. Not because Grill 'Em All serves up slop, but because their use of all local ingredients is something they see as absolutely essential.
"We use everything fresh, everything local, and everything of the highest quality," explains Harkins, which includes meat from local mom and pop company Rocker Brothers, and buns from a bakery located near their Burbank commissary. But there are no signs, besides the jokey specials wipeboard that declare this philosophy about using fresh, local ingredients. "Well, shit, you should just be doing that anyways," says Harkins. "We don't advertise that everything is local, but it is. That's just how it should be. Period."
Finding those kinds of purveyors was just one of the challenges Chernus and Harkins faced when on the road for the Great Food Truck Race. Not able to use their usual crowd-connector tools like Twitter or Facebook, the team, including friend Joel Brown, had to not only seek out great places to sell without their regular fan base present, but had to scour Google for vendors who could get them the ingredients they needed to make the best possible product.
"We were less worried about where we were going to be. We were more worried about using ingredients that were up to our standards, not using frozen product. But we actually found meat purveyors and bakers--that was more important to us than winning the show," attests Harkins, adding, "We wanted to show people that our food was legit."
Getting people in new cities, who didn't know about Grill 'Em All, and maybe even not about the trend of food trucks, was also daunting.
"It was crazy," says Harkins. "You kind of pick and choose where you're going to park, figure out where people are. You can't just say 'hey we're here today' [online] and have people come out. We had to actually be seen somewhere. That was insanely difficult."
And of course, being gone for an indefinite amount of time meant worrying about paying rent, saying goodbye to their respective girlfriends, and making sure all their loose ends were tied up. When the cameras started rolling, explains Chernus, it was a bit of a shock. "You're still thinking like, whether or not you left the oven on at home!"
At home in Los Angeles, these Cleveland transplants have made the truck their life since they debuted in mid-December of last year. They describe themselves as "seasoned," on the food truck scene, considering how many new trucks launch these days.
"It's been an emotional roller coaster of burgers, emotions, and...fulfillment," teases Chernus. "I thought we'd be making a lot more money," chimes in Harkins.
Making money for trucks can present a challenge, as can current socio-political controversy about where food trucks can park. Grill 'Em All tries to only go where invited, and to avoid parking where lots of other trucks part. One pet peeve, explains Chernus, is the sort of copy-catting of trucks on where to go on a given day.
"It's an unwritten rule of food truckery to be away from a restaurant," remarks Chernus, coining a term. "It's a matter of respect," add Harkins. "You gotta respect the restaurants, you gotta respect other trucks."
Respect, and camaraderie, is what Grill 'Em All found out on the road for the Food Network show, if Harkins' tattoo of the Austin Daily Press, a Texas sandwich truck, bears any testament.
Locally, Chernus and Harkins have a deep respect for their clients, and relish the interaction they have with them online and in person. Harkins describes the current food truck craze as "something really nerdy and subculturish." The customers are "part of a phenomenon," he explains. "They are participating in this stuff with us...it's something completely unique, and it's just a cool nerdy thing to do."
The Food Network's Great Food Truck Race is certainly elevating the truck trend to a national status, but its roots are clearly here at home."Los Angeles is awesome!" exclaims Chernus. "As far as this whole gourmet trend, it was given its first breath of air, and national exposure here in L.A., and there's more here than anywhere else, which you can chalk up to the weather."
Will the weather--and other variables--prove surmountable for Grill 'Em All on the Great Food Truck Race? The series debuted on Sunday, and the first truck out was fellow Angeleno Nana Queens, so that means the boys are back on the road in episode two.
Beyond the show, Chernus and Harkins have plans to stick around. "Oh, Grill 'em All's not gonna die!" declares Harkins. Their plans are to have a restaurant eventually, but first they are working with a local restaurant whose owner is a big food truck fan, who will have them in for a pop-up style event.
Los Angeles is definitely a food truck town, and a burger town, something Harkins appreciates. "I do eat a burger at least once a day," he confesses. "And I do love heavy metal."
Follow Grill 'Em All on Twitter to see where they're stopping next. The Great Food Truck Race airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on the Food Network.