During lunchtime, the stretch of New Haven’s Cedar Street between Congress Avenue and York Street is filled with the clanking of knives and the sizzling of frying fat. Nearly a hundred people mill about the two-dozen food carts clustered around the Yale School of Medicine.
“Where else can you get a full meal for five or six dollars?” asks Mary Weng, a student at the Yale School of Public Health, as she orders a half-chicken, half-steak burrito from one of the carts.
Standing in his food truck, Jon’s Lunch, on a cold Saturday in March, Jon Roy is working with a steady rhythm. Wearing jeans, a black sweater, and a Bacardi Limón baseball cap, he serves up a “Yagi Soba,” which consists of salad, steak, and spaghetti, and a “Stinky Bomb” sandwich with gorgonzola, pastrami, onion, and sausage. Roy is one of the few truck employees who runs his own show, without a boss calling the shots over his shoulders. Every weekday, he pulls in at 9:00 a.m., waiting for the regular medical students, researchers, workers, and administrators who stop by between shifts.
When I speak with him in April, he is less than thrilled that the New England winter has been so long this year. He’s tired of this weather, the constant chill. Business is slow when it’s cold outside. “There are easier ways of making money,” he says. But he has become a familiar face for people who form lines at his cart each day.Customers reach into the till — a simple white bucket — to make their own change. “Trusting guy, isn’t he?” says an older man with golden glasses who stops by for a buffalo chicken wrap.
Roy works alongside trucks serving Chinese, Mediterranean, Japanese, Bengali, Indian, Italian, Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, Italian, Ethiopian, and Thai food. But he offers straightforward American fare: subs, salads, and wraps. He prepares almost all of the food on site, drawing on lessons from childhood summers on an island near Maine, where his grandmother and great-aunt — a “Julia Child wannabe,” he says — taught him to cook. They prepared recipes from cookbooks and television cooking shows together.
He ran a food truck with a friend starting two decades ago, but when his girlfriend — now his wife — got pregnant, he started his own business to cover the bills. Getting into the industry is not cheap; a used truck can cost around four or five thousand dollars, while a new one is usually around ten thousand. A yearly permit in New Haven costs $200.
Now he earns “enough to live comfortably,” he says, and he speaks with pride of his 22-year-old daughter, who is out of college and working for Next Step Energy, a company that designs and installs renewable energy systems. But when asked whether he would want to pass on his business, he chuckles: “No. This is my Social Security. I might lease it sooner rather than later.”
As we talk, a vendor from a truck on the other side of the street comes over to fish some change out of Roy’s white bucket, because he’s short a few coins.
“You’re a pain in the ass,” Roy says, rolling his eyes.
“But I’m a good pain in the ass, right?” replies his fellow vendor, grinning.
“Everybody’s really nice,” Roy assures, after the vendor has left. “When I got married, half of these vendors were at my wedding.”
He can never predict whether the business day will be good or bad, but the lunchtime crowd has sustained him through the years, along with the line of trucks on either side of him, making a one-man job a more social affair.
A man in scrubs who is paying for his food interrupts our conversation. “This is embarrassing,” the man begins uncomfortably. “But I forgot to pay you last time.” For an instant, Roy looks taken aback. A second later, he smiles, accepts the money for both orders, and tells his regular not to worry about it.
At 2:00 p.m., he begins loading up his materials and cleaning his cart. Then, he hitches it to a truck and drives back home.