Behind the Window

Life on a San Francisco Food Truck

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This story was originally published by SF Weekly.


 

As San Francisco was just waking up last Sunday, behind an unmarked brown door and 21 steps up a dingy white stairway in Soma, half a dozen people rushed between storage vaults, loading a cart with supplies. At 9:30, satisfied they had what they needed, they left the staging area and descended to the street. Two heavy black trucks squatted outside, waiting.

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The secret entrance to the Bacon Cave, somewhere in SoMa.

Four people piled into the one of the trucks. Alfred Webster, a heavy-set African-American guy clad in black, climbed into its belly, two more took their places in the front seats, and one ducked down between them. The truck rumbled to life, and split off from the other crew. Its engine growled as it strained up an entrance ramp and accelerated onto I-80.

Destination: the Treasure Island Flea Market. Objective: sell bacon. Lots of bacon.

In addition to Webster, there was Krysten Wasik, a red-haired woman with a dirty Giants hat who drove the truck, Thomas Mello, a soft-spoken scruffy guy in a brown cadet cap and chef’s pants, and myself — they’d agreed to let me ride along to see what it’s like working in one of San Francisco’s most popular food trucks, Bacon Bacon.

Like many food trucks, Bacon Bacon started small. When founder Jim Angelus entered the scene in 2011, it was just him and a truck he’d bought off Craigslist. Now the company employs 35 people, and includes a cafe, a trailer at Fisherman’s Wharf, and a veritable fleet of trucks.

We crawled over the Bay Bridge in Bacon Bacon’s second truck. As Wasik explained, it was the second one purchased.

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An engine malfunction turned the original truck into a fiery vortex.

“The first one exploded a few years ago,” she said.
I laughed uneasily as the engine groaned, and Wasik and Mello went over details of the day.

“Oh man, we are going to get so slammed,” Mello said, shaking his head. It would become a common refrain that morning.

After negotiating our way past the wielder of the Official Market Clipboard — evidently we were late — Wasik rolled down to the end of the 20 or so trucks lined up in the grass. She parked, and the three of them took off in different directions.

“A lot of people go smoke before we start,” she said. “Everybody’s got an addiction in this line of work.”

A few minutes later, I found Mello in the kitchen wiping down counters, and he talked about how he’d left the world of fine dining and joined Bacon Bacon late last year. Soon Wasik and Webster returned to help set up; dozens of things had to happen to be ready by 11:00. Mello finished cleaning, and they started right in with the food prep.

“We are going to get so slammed today,” he repeated.

Alfred pulled out a huge metal tub of roasted pork and emptied it onto the grill. The mound of meat hissed and steamed, filling the truck with the scent of barbecue. With dual spatulas and a look of concentration, he methodically sliced and turned it over.

“Hey Alfred!” Mello yelled to Webster. “How much meat you think that is?”

Webster stepped back, staring. “Twenty pounds,” he guessed, then continued.

Prepped buns await their patties.
Prepped buns await their patties.

Though they worked quickly, they didn’t seem overly stressed — the atmosphere just felt more relaxed than a normal kitchen. Combine that with the lower start-up costs, and a lot of chefs want their own business.

“For a lot of people now, that’s food trucks,” Mello said. He’s already got an idea for his own some day.

A mix of soul and salsa played from someone’s phone, and they chatted about work, food, and music — Mello and Webster are musicians on the side. The truck swayed from a light breeze blowing off the bay, adding to the illusion that the kitchen could have been a ship’s galley. The quarters felt claustrophobic to me, and the air heated up with the grill. But it wasn’t as bad as when they worked at BottleRock.

That was hot, Wasik cheerily reported. “It was up to 115 in here.”

As the 11:00 hour drew nearer, some of the food was ready for tasting. They proffered little samples of bacon jam (a sweet and salty blend of bacon, onions, and maple syrup), pork belly (tender slices of fatty pork slow-roasted for hours beforehand, then seared on the grill with salt), and bacon mayo (exactly what it sounds like). I wondered how they weren’t all obese.

“I’ve got fast metabolism,” Mello said. “And Alfred boxes. He burns off his fat!” Webster grinned and made a fist.

Hot grill + hot day = hot truck.
Hot grill + hot day = hot truck.

The crew quickened its pace until the appointed hour finally struck. Light and fresh air poured into the truck when Wasik opened the window at 11:01. At 11:02, she took their first order. And then another. And another.

Her calls of “Order!” soon rang out faster than the cooks could prepare them. They spun back and forth between the counter, buns, grill, fryer, toppings, counter, window, grill… At one point, Mello let out a maniacal scream.

An hour in, they were already low on necessities like bread, ketchup, and change — way more people were paying in cash than usual, likely because the market was cash-only. The temperature inside steadily climbed, and the two cooks sweated as they wrapped burritos and grilled burgers faster and faster. But the line for the truck snaked ever further out across the lawn, a sea of faces gaping up at the window, waiting.

They had arrived. And they were hungry.