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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Lessons Learned on a Food Truck



“So how was it, Mama?” Max asked when I returned from a week-long stint on a food truck at a horse show in Vermont.

“Well, I was up at 5:15 every day. And you know I don’t get up before 8. I stood on my feet for literally ten hours a day. And you know I have those bad knees. It was steaming hot. No air conditioning. And you know how I feel about heat. I took orders from people all day long. And you know how I feel about taking orders. I spent hours bent in half, leaning down to hand customers their food. And you know I have arthritis in my spine, right? I missed all the good Olympics because I couldn’t keep my eyes open past 9:30 at night. And you know how much I love the Olympics. And I suspect I’ll smell like grease for the rest of my life.”

“So, tell me again, why did you do this?” my recent college graduate asked, somewhat rhetorically.

At that point I could have spewed off a litany of smart alecky remarks, beginning and ending with, “Well, SOMEone has to pay off your college debt.” But instead, I took the high road.

“Why did I do it?” I answered. “Well, when I worked that weekend in April I made all kinds of new friends. So, I got to see Carrie again and finally met her husband, Peter. I got to work with my friend Andrea. I got to spend a week with my sister. And besides, it was fun. You know me, I’m always looking for new friends and life lessons. And working on a food truck gives you a whole new perspective on life.”

I had a slew of odd jobs before I found my life work. I scooped ice cream at our family’s ice cream shop until it got bought out by Friendly’s, served popcorn at a movie theater until I got fired for going on a senior trip to Nassau, plugged cords into a switchboard working the overnight shift at a doctors' answering service, cold-called unsuspecting citizens in futile attempts to sell cemetery plots and was shamed and subsequently fired by a mean old man in the campaign button business.  Eventually I got a real job at TV Guide magazine and then a decade later as a copywriter at CNBC. Finally, I landed the best job of all –  albeit the least lucrative – working from home as a freelance writer while simultaneously driving the old minivan, watching sports and folding the laundry.

All have had their ups and downs, their sagas and sacrifices, but not a one has been what you’d call a life lesson job.

My sister Nancy’s best buddies, Peter and Carrie, recently purchased a food truck business that follows the horse show circuit up and down the east coast. For a quarter of the year, they live like carnies, packing up and moving on when the show comes to a close. Being the workhorse and good friend that she is, Nancy spent a good chunk of that time with them in this, their inaugural year as horse show food truckies. Being lesser of a workhorse, but still a good sister, I worked three days in the spring at a show in New Jersey and then committed to working the final leg of the Vermont Summer Festival Horse Show in August. 

Horse show people are an enigma to me. The Hermes belt buckles, khaki-colored knee-patch breeches and leather bracelets with horses’ names etched in brass – are all somewhat intimidating to me despite my WASPy, country-club upbringing. But whenever I feel like I’m on other side of the corral looking in, I do my darndest to find common pastures.

And while I missed the hunters and jumpers, didn’t get to see the Grand Prix competition and don't know a whole lot more about equestrianism than I did before I started, I found that life lessons can be learned in the most unsuspecting places. In this case, peering in and out from my perch on a food truck.

Hold Your Horses.
Whether you’re standing outside in a long, hot line waiting for your breakfast burrito or you’re inside the truck waiting for the cook to complete a five-sandwich order, just hold your horses. Being nasty won’t get the job done any faster.

Don’t cry over spilled milk.
Just own your mistake, clean it up and remember that an open container is a recipe for disaster.

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
Grooming horses or chopping melons, watering show rings or stocking condiments, cleaning stables or wiping counters, everyone has a method to their own madness. It might not be the most efficient way. It might not be the right way. But even if their way drives you crazy, don’t let your madness trump theirs.

Never travel with more than what fits in your wagon.
Overloading can tax even the strongest of constitutions. 


When you’re not riding, don’t grab the reins.
You can control your horse. You can control your kitchen. You can control your children. As long as it’s your job, there’s nothing wrong with being in control. Just keep your control issues in your own territory.

If life doesn’t give you lemons, then push the iced coffee.
When your horse spooks, when the produce delivery is devoid of tomatoes, when a key employee takes an unplanned day or two or three off, skip the festering and fretting and go directly to Plan B.

If two ride on a horse, one must ride behind.
Remember, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish when a friend’s got your back.
 
If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Even Vermont has its hot flashes.

Get right back in the saddle.
Thrown to the ground or growled at by your boss. Forgive and forget and get on with the show.

Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.
Because we all know what happens when that basket falls.

Life’s a dog and pony show.
Whether it’s an American Quarter Horse, a jumping Jack Russell, a Thoroughbred or a botched attempt at a labradoodle, you can’t judge a pet (or a person) by their pedigree. Keep in mind that we all use the same Port-a-Potty. 
Point your knives down.
A sharp tongue can do as much damage as a sharp blade.

As I slowly acclimate back to my sedentary life, sitting in front of a computer screen counting words rather than counting change, I got to thinking about my food truck lessons and how so much of it all comes down to faith. 

Faith that the truck would close down for the day before my body did, and before the french fries ran out.  Faith that my second-grade math skills would suffice when the line was long and tempers were short. Faith that that Victor would pull through and put a bag of ice across our shoulders before heat stroke set in. Faith that the lobster roll would pass the taste test of the man from Maine. Faith that the oven would light, the refrigerator would cool, the water would run. Faith that the blond-haired woman with the caprese sandwich and sweet potato fries would come back with the $12.00 she owed.

And faith that friends, as well as family, can actually work and live together for long, grueling hours in tight spaces. You just have to have faith that you have the right friends and the right family. And when you do, friends become family. And that's really what it's all about. 

But, of all that I learned on the food truck, I'd have to say the most important life lesson to remember is that you should always, always, make time to kiss the cook.

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