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Ridin' foodie: A day in the life of a Pittsburgh food truck

Athena CE and Tim Tassone.

Tassone slings mac over the truck's range.

Athena CE serves some mac.



Stepping onto the school-bus yellow Mac & Gold food truck just ahead of lunch hour on a hot July day, one will find the chef and owner of the truck, Tim Tassone with manager and sous chef, Athena CE preparing for a crowd of hungry patrons. They chop vegetables and meat, prep for their sauces, and warm up the burners of the truck’s range.
 
Tim pulls a bin of pasta from the refrigerator noting that a full receptacle weighs 22 pounds. They went through six full bins while slinging mac at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in June.
 
On the truck, the smell of melted cheese, smoky bacon and panko breadcrumbs is overwhelming. The hot stoves meet with the whirl of small fans and create a low roar, making it slightly difficult to hear.
 
Mac & Gold is a bona fide restaurant on wheels.
 
Tassone, born and raised in Pittsburgh, has worked as a cook at a number of local eateries. He says his idea for the Mac & Gold Cheesery was born from creating pasta and Alfredo specials at previous restaurant jobs.
 
As customers trickle in, there is a palpable buzz. Colleagues and co-workers are clearly excited that the food truck is parked near their workplace, making lunch hour more special. Some patrons, who could be likened to Mac & Gold groupies, are met with familiar first-name greetings.
 
Currently, there are 289 Food Trucks operating in the Steel City’s streets, enticing patrons to not only try new cuisine, but also experience fun, often elevated, takes on old favorites such as hot dogs, barbecue and mac n’ cheese, flipping the traditional idea of street food on its head. Not only does this culinary trend make different types of food more accessible to the masses, but also, it makes entrepreneurship more accessible to chefs and budding restaurateurs.
 
The perks of being a food truck
Tassone says Pittsburgh seems to be in favor of the food truck movement. Originally, he explains, he had anxiety that mac and cheese would be too “niche.” But for a rotating restaurant, it's a great model. Pittsburgh immediately showed support on social media. Mac & Gold currently has more than 2,000 followers on Twitter.
 
The end of a five-day run on the Mac & Gold Truck usually means the truck has been to five different neighborhoods. This constant movement is a perk for Tassone. He enjoys the freedom of his moveable job site, as well as being his own boss.

But choosing a food truck over a brick-and-mortar restaurant also has its challenges, one of the biggest being prep work. 
 
“We make basically everything from scratch,” CE says.
 
Tassone says that sometimes means a 4AM start for morning gigs and late-night events means cleaning into the wee hours. He jokes that he has had some multi-event days that create a different spin on the traditional workday.  A food truck workday, he says, can be 5AM to 9PM.
 
In addition to fuel and water tank maintenance, food truck operations are also weather dependent. Tassone started Mac & Gold in May, just in time for the summer season.  He notes that though the truck prepares hearty food, cold temperatures may mean less people willing to wait for lunch outside. The team is hoping that catering will carry them through the winter.
 
On the truck in the South Side, CE and Tassone move efficiently as they are met with a steady stream of customers. Though we are on a truck, Tassone skillfully prepares food at an efficient pace, CE assisting. The duo is a well-oiled machine.
 
“We like getting challenged with long lines,” Tassone says with a hint of mischief. 
 
Having fun with your food
When an order is made at Mac & Gold, the pasta is put in a pan and blended with cheese sauce. The toppings are cooked to order on another burner and as the cheese and noodles meld together, they crisp in the pan.
 
“I like getting a little pan in there,” Tassone says as the cheese slightly browns. He explains that before opening the truck, he wanted to find a portable way to produce a baked mac and cheese flavor. When he managed to capture that essence with pan-fried mac and cheese topped with panko breadcrumbs, he felt he’d struck gold—pun intended. 
 
Tassone is also getting creative when it comes to flavor combinations, with recipes including ingredients like Brussels sprouts, bacon and caramelized onion.
 
This sort of fun with food is prevalent in the ever-growing Pittsburgh food truck community. The Southside BBQ Company food truck, for example, offers an ice cream cone stuffed with mac and cheese, pulled pork and slaw. When you order the Bar-B-Cone, the vendors yell the name — twice. It’s all quite amusing and delicious.
 
In addition to puns, Jamie McLeland of The Steer & Wheel describes how food trucks give chefs the opportunity to have fun with a menu.
 
Steer & Wheel’s online menu lists more than 20 artisan burgers, though only four choices are offered daily. 
 
“[That’s] the beauty of the food truck … you don’t have a set menu,” McLeland says, noting that when a fun ingredient comes your way—like ghost pepper jack cheese—you can come up with a special on the spot.
 
Another place for fun? A catchy name.
 
“I think the name’s a pretty significant part of the food truck industry,” Tassone says.
 
He says a friend coined the name Mac & Gold, which he calls a perfect “nod” to Pittsburgh.
 
Start your engines
Operating a mobile restaurant may sound breezy, but there are lots of logistical details that have to be ironed out on a near daily basis, from picking out your wheels to deciding where to park them. And don’t forget staying up to health code while on the road.

When it came to procuring a truck, Tassone had his appropriately colored Mac & Gold Truck custom built from Vending Trucks, Inc. of New Jersey. The truck is manufactured to be compliant with codes and was an efficient way to avoid the costly repairs that sometimes accompany buying a used vehicle.
 
Parking is another logistic to consider as the proprietor of a food truck. Tassone tries to avoid metered parking, stays off main roads in favor of setting up shop on side streets and only goes to businesses where he’s been invited. Trucks must also have a permanent parking facility to meet health codes.
 
Just like any other restaurant, among the most important aspects of running a food truck is meeting health code. Joe Witzel, Allegheny County Health Department environmental health supervisor, says trucks must have a stainless steel sink, hand wash sink, commercial refrigeration, cooking equipment and commercial exhaust.
 
Food trucks are also required to dump water, prep food and clean cooking equipment at a facility that is already inspected and permitted. Witzel says there are a few places such as restaurants and churches that lease commercial kitchens to vendors, caterers and food trucks. Tassone, a former employee of the Map Room, uses the restaurant as such a venue.
 
“Some of the food trucks I have seen lately are very, very nice,” Witzel says, adding that the quality of the kitchen equipment is top-of-the-line and some trucks have easy to clean stainless steel walls.
 
Recipe for Success
Just a few months after opening, Mac & Gold’s calendar is full. Tassone credits this success to the support from customers and the close-knit food truck community.
 
“Among trucks, the community is really strong,” says Tassone.

In addition to food and maintenance advice, truck proprietors help each other start out and get introduced to food truck venues.
 
He credits his parking garage neighbor and fellow food truck operator Jamie McLeland, with showing him the ropes.
 
He says McLeland warned him that a good looking truck and funny name only go so far, but good food gets repeat customers.
 
McLeland’s truck, The Steer & Wheel is on a mission to serve a burger done better. When McLeland got rolling in spring 2013, like Tassone, he reached out to a more senior food truck. He credits Franktuary with showing him the tools of the trade.
  
Like Tassone, after working in food service for a number of years, McLeland wanted to branch out and be his own boss.
 
“I remember being 25 and being in the same kitchen for five years,” he begins. He says he remembers thinking, “I can’t imagine being 40 and still looking at these walls.”
 
Now, McLeland jokes that he is 41 and gets a daily change of scenery.  He adds that a food truck is open when you decide and has an element of surprise. It’s a pop-up, novel opportunity for customers.
 
“Finding new spots [can be] kind of a gamble," McLeland says. "One day you might be pleasantly surprised and get [slammed] for lunch.”  

Lunch hour, depending on the day and venue, may be more or less successful. Though this uncertainty can be good.

“It’s  part of the adventure,” he says.
 
By having a kitchen on wheels, McLeland says there is a closer connection to customer.
 
“There’s no back of the house … there’s a window,” he says.
 
Tassone also describes the pleasure of direct customer interaction. With a model like mac and cheese, he says it’s fun to serve families. When catering kids’ birthday parties and family-friendly festivals, he notes the parents love to experiment with the nostalgic dish, while pickier kids will simply add bacon.
 
“I think we got lucky that people seem to respond to the mac and cheese idea,” Tassone says. 
 
He adds that he hopes to eventually open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, “First, we’ll finish our second month of having a truck.”
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