An old blue-and-yellow step van with the exhortation "Admit it…you need a sandwich" on the side, Ebbett's turns up everywhere from the Mission District to the Embarcadero to Emerywille and Oakland, with a seasonal sandwich menu that includes tofu with Asian slaw, grilled English Cheddar with bacon and apples, and what can only be termed a Bay Area Cuban — Niman Ranch pulled pork, artisan ham, Gruyère, jalapeño relish, and chipotle aïoli on an Acme Bakery roll.
Founders Suzanne Schafer and Shari Washburn launched their truck in June, 2010, after their children were in school full-time "and the stay-at-home life had left us kind of, well, bored." Schafer and Washburn are quick to note on their site that "being a stay-at-home mom is a ridiculously busy occupation," but they added, "us two moms were beginning to get weary of our routine, when making dinner was the only interesting part of our day. And quite frankly, we longed to be known as someone other than 'so-and-so's mom.'" Well, their efforts have been rewarded with a hearty Bay Area following and a place in 2012 on The Daily Meal's list of 101 Best Food Trucks in America.
Read More: 101 Best Food Trucks in America 2012
In this interview with Schafer and Washburn, find out who came up with the truck's name and how, where its wood paneling came from, plans for an upcoming new sandwich, and how 22 years after Schafer's feminist awakening, her principals have been "completely undone by a 24-foot truck."
What was the inspiration for going into this business?
It was kind of like one of our recipes: Suzanne started with a dream to do something in the food business then added to it our huge sense adventure, our obsession with good food, and our desire to do something completely our own. Top it off with the burgeoning food truck trend and let simmer. Next thing you know, we were looking for a truck.
What's the story behind the origin of your truck's name?
Suzanne's husband, our "Not-So-Silent Investor," came up with the name. It's a mash-up of our kids' names. We liked the idea of having their names be a part of what we were doing. It's like a constant reminder of what is really important in our lives.
How did you come up with your truck's design? Is there a designer you'd like to give a shout-out to?
As far as we know, our truck is the only wood-paneled truck out there. The original owner built it to resemble a classic woodie-style car. When we found it after sitting unused for five years in a parking lot, the wood was badly damaged but we immediately fell in love with its unique look anyway. We had the wood refurbished by Mike Lederle at Berkeley Good Wood. Our logo was designed by photographer and designer Kristen Policy.
Does your truck have a vanity license plate?
What model truck do you have?
Our truck is NOT a refurbished taco truck, like many of the trucks out there. It's a Gruman custom-built truck with two full ovens, a gas grill, griddle, four-burner stove, steam table, cold table, and full fridge and freezer (which we use for storage since it doesn't work and we don't need to freeze anything).
What's your signature dish? Is it also your most popular dish?
We are known for the Ebbett's Cuban Sandwich, a modern twist on the classic Cuban. It takes three days to prepare our pork, which is rubbed with herbs and spices and then roasted low and slow. Instead of the traditional Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles, we use Gruyère cheese, jalapeño relish, and chipotle aioli. In some locations, we sell around 150 Cubans during lunch.
What's the inspiration for your cuisine and recipes?
A local bakery/sandwich shop, Bakesale Betty's, was an inspiration for the type of and number of sandwiches we wanted to offer. They have two kinds of sandwiches and sell hundreds each day. We did not set out to be a deli with 50 different combinations. Our vision was to have two or three "category-killer sandwiches." We worked on our first sandwich, the Cuban, for several months, trying tomato jam, onion relish, cornichon relish, and different aiolis before we finally settled on our chipotle aioli and jalapeño relish combination along with Niman Ranch pork, Gruyère, and ham. We use Acme bread for all of our sandwiches and the bread grills perfectly! Suzanne's husband was our critic and was pretty spot on when he approved a sandwich. We also wanted a vegetarian sandwich, but Shari was adamant about not having another grilled portabello mushroom or eggplant sandwich. We chose Hodo Soy Tofu and baked it according to Shari's home recipe and then shredded it in the food processor for a more textured, airy filling. We went through several iterations of our tofu sandwich before hitting a home run with our Asian Tofu with wasabi-aioli, Sriracha, and an Asian slaw. It is becoming a big seller! We also have have two to three specials every day.
What's the most challenging thing about running your food truck?
It is a very physical job! Some days we are just so tired as we are always on our feet and lifting heavy supplies!
Would you ever go brick-and-mortar?
What one piece of advice would you give someone looking to get into the food truck business?
When we started, there were probably 20 food trucks in the San Francisco/Oakland market; now there are more than 200 in two years. We were also the first sandwich truck we knew of. Now there are at least a dozen. The ones that were open then are mostly still up and running, but many have closed down that have opened since. It is vital to have busy markets with a critical mass of people — it is getting really hard to find places to sell that are not saturated.
Any new upcoming dishes planned that you can tell us about?
Maybe a tofu Cuban!
Any new plans on the horizon you can share?
Many plans, but nothing concrete yet. Lots of scheming for now...
Lots of things happen when running a restaurant, and that probably goes double on the road. As such, be it weird, funny, good, or bad, what's one superlative or particularly outstanding moment or story that's ever occurred with your truck be it with customers, in the kitchen, or just in general?
We really wrestled with this one. We think the hallmark for us is how completely clueless we were about the mechanics of the truck when we first started and how, because we are women, people expected us to be helpless (and how that was actually a boon for us). That story is here on our blog, but here is the excerpt:
"The men we are dealing with definitely behave as if it is completely natural that we don’t know what the hell we are doing when it comes to the truck. In fact, we’ve come awfully close to being patted on the head for being so darn cute. Normally, this would annoy the sh#t out of the feminist in me to no end. I mean, if we were two men changing careers, it would be expected that we would know if we had a catalytic converter (and where the friggin’ gas tank is, for that matter). But the reality is, being treated like helpless females has been a real boon for us. Men are falling all over themselves to back our truck out of tight spaces, pull it into narrow garages, and bring it all the way from Hayward to Oakland for our Health Department inspection and then back down again so that we don’t have to drive that huge scary truck all by our lonesome on that big bad highway."
And there you have it folks — 22 years after my feminist awakening, my principals have been completely undone by a 24-foot truck.
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.