Talking with Anthony Hashem of The Happy Grilled Cheese food truck
1. Tell us about The Happy Grilled Cheese.
We are Jacksonville's original gourmet grilled cheese food truck. We feature all fresh ingredients. Nothing is frozen or comes out of a can. The only exception is our frozen tater-tots which we only use when our chips sell out. In addition to our gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches we also feature home made soups and hand cut chips. Our chips are sliced and cooked on the truck in small batches … they're a must have!
2. Why did you decide to focus on grilled cheese for your food truck?
In cities where food trucks are really popular those trucks serving grilled cheese are among the most popular. I also wanted to have a universal menu that would have wide appeal for everyone from the pickiest eater to the most demanding foodie. Grilled cheese is classic comfort food that everyone likes. The popularity of grilled cheese is similar to what cupcakes have been over the past 10 years. Even brick and mortar restaurants are starting to add grilled cheese to their menus.
3. How long has The Happy Grilled Cheese been in operation?
I started on February 27th, 2013.
4. Are you the owner?
Yes, it's myself along with a few minority investors.
5. Can you tell us about your sandwiches?
We have specialty grilled cheese sandwiches or you can build your own. We start with a thick cut Texas toast or hearty wheat bread. We use a sturdy bread because we need it to hold up to all the toppings we use - and we like to load our sandwiches up with meats and veggies.
6. What are some of your most popular sandwiches?
One is the All American Melt. It comes with American cheese, bacon and tomato slices. The Mac Melt has cheddar cheese, American cheese, home made mac and cheese and grilled onions. The Daddy of the Mac has everything the Mac Melt has along with pulled pork.
7. You have mac and cheese inside the Mac Melt?
Yes, it's really good.
8. Why did you choose to have chips rather than french fries?
I wanted to stay original with the menu and also feature home made quality. Cutting fresh potatoes every morning isn't the easy way to do it, but nothing good comes easy....right!?!?
9. Can you tell us about your soups?
I make two regular soups a day. Both are vegetarian and home made. I have a beer cheese soup and tomato bisque that will be my mainstays. I'll add things like a hearty chili when it's really cold or a watermelon gazpacho when it's really warm.
10. How did you come up with the menu?
It's just what I like and what I think tastes good. I've spent a long time in the test kitchen trying out various grilled cheese combinations. Ideas pop into my head all the time. Sometimes I'll wake up at night with an idea that I write down to try out in the morning.
11. Do you have a set menu or will things rotate?
Things will definitely rotate. I have about 60 combinations that I've come up with so far and a couple more pop into my head every week. We'll offer 7-10 choices per day; 3-4 will be fixtures and the rest will rotate.
12. Is your plan to grow the size of the menu or keep it to 7-10 sandwiches per day?
With a food truck there's only so much space so that will be what limits the number of sandwiches we can offer at any one time. Longer term the plan is to have a brick and mortar restaurant that offers the full selection of sandwiches.
13. Do you have a signature sandwich?
I'd like to have a totally original grilled cheese that we're known for but that may take a while to establish. We'll try different things and see what works. There was a big Natural Life festival recently and I thought I'd try out my home made hummus and pita chips. I made 88 portions thinking it would be a big hit. It turns out that the big seller was our "Porky the Melt" which is pulled pork, bacon, ham and two types of cheeses. So I really guessed wrong there! I'll have to wait and see what eventually connects as our signature grilled cheese.
14. What would you recommend for someone who's coming for the first time?
If you're coming for the first time I always tell people to be adventurous. It's grilled cheese and should be fun. When people order a plain sandwich I'll encourage them to try something a little different.
15. Do most people want toppings or do they gravitate to a plain grilled cheese?
Most people want toppings for sure.
16. What's the most popular topping?
Either tomato slices, jalapeños, or of course, BACON! We've only been open for 6 weeks though and haven't rolled out our full menu, so I'll see if things change over time.
17. What would you recommend to someone who wants something a little different?
If you like spicy food we have our "Hot Mama Melt" that comes with pepper jack cheese, home made guacamole, red onions and jalapeños. That's a really nice sandwich.
18. Are you mostly doing lunches?
Yes, lunches for now. I'm still looking for that niche for dinner. Food trucks are really well suited to pedestrian traffic. That works well around office parks at lunch, but Jacksonville isn't a very pedestrian city in general so that makes dinner more challenging. There are events that draw crowds at night but it's harder to be out when there's nothing specific going on.
19. Where do you like to eat when you're not eating at The Happy Grilled Cheese?
That's tough. I'll eat anything. Lately I'm just tasting new grilled cheeses but when I go out I prefer to support small businesses, "Mom & Pop" type places, and of course other food trucks!
20. Do you offer catering?
Yes. A big thing that's growing around the country is to have a "fourth meal" at wedding receptions. Food trucks are perfect for that. I'd like to service that market, along with kids birthday parties and special events.
21. Can you tell us about the paint job on your truck?
Most trucks use a wrap for their exterior design but we feature an original, hand-painted design by Jessica Becker. Jessica's a local mural artist. She painted the mural at TacoLu which has gotten some attention recently. It's a 3 story wall at TacoLu's new location that she painted. She had just finished that work and was available to work on the truck. She's a good friend of mine and a heck of an artist. When I'm driving down the road people's immediate reaction when they see the truck is a big smile, which I think is kind of cool. C'mon, it's The Happy Grilled Cheese after all.
22. How did you come up with the name, The Happy Grilled Cheese?
When I was originally working on a name I kept coming back to "happy" and "grilled cheese" - they just go together. Grilled cheese makes you happy. When people walk up to the truck they have a big grin. When they see some of the fun names for our sandwiches it just makes it a happy experience. People like it.
23. Can you tell us about your background?
My family owned a breakfast and lunch deli for over 35 years here in Jacksonville. We featured soups, salads, sandwiches and Lebanese specialties. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was learning to cook from a very early age - as soon as I could reach the counter I was doing prep work. I grew up around people with a very entrepreneurial spirit who wanted to be their own boss. I worked for the past 7-8 years in the corporate world and came to the conclusion that I also wanted to be my own boss. So, I wrote up a business plan, teamed up with some great investors and left my corporate job for the food truck world.
24. Did you always think of opening a food truck, or did you consider a brick and mortar restaurant?
My father is originally from Austin, Texas and we go there for vacations or to hang out with friends quite a bit. Austin is one of the leaders of the modern food truck craze, so I've been a fan of street food for a long time. Even before Jacksonville started getting its food trucks I was always talking about the need for them here. My goal was to be one of the first full-time operating food trucks in Jacksonville.
25. Are you from Jacksonville or why did you decide to start your food truck here?
I'm from here. My mom's family has been in Jacksonville for 3 generations. Jacksonville's home. I thought about moving to Austin to open the truck, but out there I'd be a little fish in a big pond. I figured that the laws in Jacksonville will eventually change - they always do - and this will be a good place to be.
26. Has the city been receptive to food trucks?
Things are definitely getting easier but they're still not easy. Two years ago food trucks were illegal, so we've come a long way. But we're still far away from being a "food truck friendly" city. Don't even get me started about the policies at the Beaches, that's another interview!
27. What makes for a food truck friendly city?
One of the biggest issues is that we can only operate on private property. In the food truck friendly cities you can also operate in public areas, such as parks, public parking lots or from street parking, so long as you're facing the curb. In New York City you can just pull up to a curb and start serving. In Jacksonville there's a space ordinance that requires us to be a certain distance from another restaurant and be on private property.
28. Have you had any big surprises so far?
Every day there's about 6 big surprises - from learning how fast your propane burns to how long the gas in your generator lasts. There's excitement around every corner on a food truck.
29. You mentioned a bricks and mortar restaurant. Would it be based on your grilled cheese sandwiches?
I'd like it to be. Seeing the popularity of grilled cheese growing around the country leads me to believe that there's a place for a specialty grilled cheese restaurant here in Jax. Stay tuned.