“It’s a restaurant on wheels”
ZANESVILLE – It was a toasty Friday night on the sidewalk outside Hobby Lobby and the sun was approaching. As usual, chef Brian Waller and his team were sapped after a long day of cooking at the Horns, Fins & Feathers food truck.
The heavy stack of receipts told the story of another successful day.
“Three hundred and four,” Waller said, shortly before closing the day’s business. “It’s crazy.”
It’s not uncommon.
One of Zanesville’s most popular traveling shows has captured the attention of anyone who loves meat and seafood. It far exceeded the expectations Waller and his mother, Kem Gibson, had when they formulated the idea last year.
Unlike most food trucks that specialize in non-traditional food items, Waller and Gibson have brought the gourmet element of fine dining to the outdoor atmosphere and mobility of a truck.
Serving everything from fresh lobster rolls (they sell 15-20 pounds a week) and fresh Lake Erie pickerel and perch to artisan angus burgers and rib eye sandwiches, there’s something on the menu for all carnivores. Those who want a healthier option can choose from three grilled chicken sandwiches.
“It’s a restaurant on wheels,” Gibson said.
Gibson has been involved in the restaurant industry since living in Chicago, where she worked at Minelli’s Pizza as a teenager. Brian, his son, was born there and eventually found his place in the business.
Since returning to Ohio, they have owned the Olde Falls Inn, now operated by Kenny Willey, and Muddy Misers on Muskingum Avenue until sale in 2021. They also had a steakhouse in Montana for 13 years.
They returned to Montana for another catering business after selling Muddy’s, but after three months of work determined that the task of complying with the establishment’s code was unrealistic.
Their long trip back to the Buckeye State gave them plenty of time to brainstorm and brainstorm ideas. They didn’t want to retire, but neither did they want another traditional restaurant in the current climate, where finding employees has been an almost universal struggle in the industry.
“With COVID, it just wasn’t fun anymore,” Gibson said. “So I wanted to be done with brick and mortar.”
This led to the food truck.
“We thought about buying Bogey’s (Tavern),” Waller said. “A friend of mine had bought it that day. We were sitting there talking with friends and he was like, ‘Man, I know where a nice food trailer is. She is brand new. She had bought it and realized that it was more work than she wanted to put into it. It was custom built. We looked at it and bought it that day.
This $50,000 investment was a game changer.
The truck not only has a fully furnished cooking area, but also enough space for three workers to manage the preparation stations and another to take the tickets. Unlike most food trucks, they have waiters waiting for customers when they are at tables with table service.
They were recently at Stonecrest Winery, just north of Frazeysburg, where Waller’s prime rib sold out fast.
“This is the best cooking restaurant I’ve had in 30 years in the business,” Gibson said. “Everything is brand new. It’s beautiful.”
Once Waller, with a wide range of cooking experience, roamed the kitchen, he quickly began formulating a menu to match his abilities. It certainly wasn’t going to be limited to gourmet tacos, burgers, and hot dogs.
It had a lot more potential.
“I maxed out the menu to fit this trailer,” Waller said. “We bought it last October and only ran it for seven weeks. We did well starting from scratch with no customers. When we reopened this spring, it went crazy. It’s out of control .”
Waller said he hand-picks all meats, seafood and produce. In addition to the arsenal of fresh starters, all of their dishes are prepared fresh, including the sides. One is white cheddar macaroni and cheese with cavatappi pasta, which can include lobster for an additional charge.
Still, nothing on the menu is perhaps as popular as Gibson’s Peanut Butter Pie. She makes it almost daily from her own recipe that has been used for decades.
“We do about 20 a week,” Waller said. “It’s amazing. People call us or stop by the house and say, ‘Can we have a pie?’ Whole pies.”
Gibson had his doubts.
“I said, ‘Brian people aren’t going to come to a food truck for this,'” Gibson said. “Well, I didn’t know that. I ate a lot of crow on it.”
Fresh Lake Erie walleye and perch are also on the menu, with the former used to make his Tropical Reuben, a combination of breaded walleye, Swiss cheese, homemade Russian dressing, fresh cilantro and pineapple salad on toasted marbled rye bread.
Waller also creates a variety of weekly specials, which often stem from polls he creates on the company’s Facebook and Instagram pages.
Past specials have included Low Country seafood porridge, prime rib and BBQ ribs with Jack Daniel’s sauce, while upcoming Father’s Day weekend slates include premium filet mignon and handmade king crab cakes. Menu items range from $10 to $20.
Waller said they are able to use their resources to buy fresh produce daily because they don’t have the overhead that comes with a traditional restaurant.
“It gives us our niche to be able to compete with what a restaurant serves,” Waller said. “That’s what I like. Who sells seafood boils, crab legs and lobster in a food trailer?”
On their Facebook page, which has nearly 5,000 followers, the company describes itself as “Ohio’s newest food truck, soon to raise the bar for the on-the-go food industry.”
In addition to their regular stops in Zanesville, such as the Kick-N-Ax and Hobby Lobby lots, they also visit other towns in the area and hope to branch out more soon, including the Cambridge area. They are registered in all 88 counties of Ohio. They were recently part of the Zanesville food truck rally at Zane’s Landing and were among several at another in Grove City, near Columbus.
They picked up local Marines who were in Zanesville on Wednesday and will be at Hobby Lobby and National Road Campground on Friday and Saturday, respectively. They also organize private events.
“We get 20 to 30 calls a week,” Waller said. “We are fully booked until October.”
Gibson, who is in charge of quality control, said they were lucky to have good help. She said assistant chef Shawn Kirkpatrick, who worked for them for eight years at Muddy’s, and Waller work seamlessly. Brittany Conley mans the window and serves.
“We all have our domains,” Waller said. “We are down to a science now.”
It’s Kirkpatrick’s steady hand decorating Gibson’s pies with caramel, hot fudge and crumbs. He also runs the flat-top grill, where the sandwiches are prepared.
“Them two, I’m not kidding, they’re freaks out there,” Gibson said of Waller and Kirkpatrick.
Their popularity continues to grow. After finishing its season in Ohio in October, they will move to Florida from October to May 2023, due to colder northern weather.
Gibson and Waller were recently approached by the Great American Food Truck Race, a reality show airing on the Food Network, to potentially be added to their lineup.
“We’re a team of four and we ship hundreds of orders a day,” Waller said. “We sell. Everything people chase us, some of the comments, they always say they like to chase the food truck to see where we’re going. It’s fun. Everyone’s happy and it’s wonderful.”
[email protected]; Twitter: @SamBlackburnTR