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Admit it… you need a sandwich

Published November 26, 2010 on Oakland North

As people line up in front of a giant wood-paneled truck on a nondescript corner in Emeryville, a man drives by waving his fist out the window, screaming, “I want my Ebbett’s.” The people standing on the sidewalk turn and look quizzically at each other, then begin to laugh and nod in agreement—they want their Ebbett’s too.

Ebbett’s Good to Go is one of the newest food trucks cruising the East Bay to hawk gourmet fare. Ebbett’s chefs, Shari Washburn, who lives in Berkeley, and Suzanne Schafer, who lives in Oakland, focus on specialty sandwiches made from organic and local ingredients. Stenciled across the side of their truck in red cursive it reads: “Admit it … you need a sandwich.” Their most popular, the “Cuban,” is full of slow-roasted herb-infused pork, ham and Gruyere cheese that’s then garnished with chipotle mayo and jalapeño relish. Another, the “Tofu Veggie Banh Mi,” has shredded, marinated and baked Hodo Soy Beanery tofu and is topped with pickled vegetables, sprigs of cilantro and spicy sauces on an Acme torpedo roll.

On a sunny Wednesday at lunchtime, customers at Ebbett’s Good to Go are patiently waiting their turns to order. They look over the specials of the day like the “Chicken Torta”—a Petaluma Farms pulled chicken breast sandwich with cilantro pesto, avocado spread, cheddar cheese and salsa verde—and hope that there will still be pickles left by the time they reach the front of the line. “We do our best to eat through them as quickly as possible,” says customer Lisa Turtle about the homemade jalapeno-infused pickles. Her friend, Katie Center, happily munches on her pickle wrapped in tin foil. “Their pickles are to die for,” she says.

Center has only missed one day of lunching at Ebbett’s Good to Go since the truck first parked in the Emeryville neighborhood where she works. She says she normally orders the veggie sandwich, but switched it up today and ordered the “Cuban.” Her friend, Saydeah Howard, leans over and says, “Their Cuban is a damn good sandwich.” Washburn finally calls out their order. Leaning through the window of the truck, she hands them their sandwiches and warns, “It’s juicy, be careful.”

Over the past year, several epicurean food trucks have popped up in the East Bay—there’s a cupcake truck (CupKates), a Korean barbecue taco truck (Seoul on Wheels), an Americana gourmet truck (Jon’s Street Eats) and more. Their loyal customers find out their constantly changing locations and menus through social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and Yelp.

Ebbett’s Good to Go has been serving up sandwiches for four months; Washburn and Schafer had their grand debut at Oakland’s Eat Real Festival in Jack London Square this August and now they can be found on Hollis Street in Emeryville along with special events like openings at Chabot Space Center and the Alameda Antiques Fair. Their idea of launching a new food truck, however, began a year before during a weekend trip with their families.

Washburn and Schafer were friends long before they were business partners. Both stay-at-home-moms, they each had side jobs—Schafer operated a small take-and-bake pizza business in Rockridge and Washburn was a freelance writer—but once their kids began school full-time, they both wanted something more. During the weekend trip, Schafer mentioned the idea of a food truck. “We were talking and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll do that with you,’” says Washburn. “It was one of those ‘we’re sitting around the campfire’ conversations.”

Next thing they knew, they were drawing up business plans, developing recipes, scouting out a truck to buy, coming up with the name Ebbett’s—which is a mash-up of both their kids’ names—and finding out how to get food licenses and business permits. “In our area, there are some amazing sandwich shops,” says Schafer, mentioning Bakesale Betty in Temescal and Naked Lunch and Sentinel in San Francisco. “We thought mobile. We wanted to come up with three or four sandwiches that were addictive—that people would really crave.”

They worked on recipes for several months—testing the “Cuban” with tomato jam, mustard and sauces until they came up with the chipotle mayo idea. They also tried to devise a flawless veggie sandwich. “I made so many mushroom sandwiches,” says Washburn, “I couldn’t look at another mushroom.”

Washburn, a vegetarian for years, had pretty much given up eating sandwiches, saying that those made with the typical assortment of grilled vegetables lack taste and are boring. “So, it was my quest to come up with a sandwich that I would love,” she says. She’d been slow roasting tofu at home and came up with the idea of putting it into a sandwich. Scrapping the mushrooms, Washburn and Schafer instead borrowed from Vietnamese culture and created the Tofu Veggie Banh Mi. “It was a nirvana moment the first time we bit into it,” she says.

Unlike some food truck chefs, Washburn and Schafer do most of their cooking and prepping in a kitchen they rent in Emeryville instead of inside the truck. Since they slow roast meats for hours on end, going through 100 to 150 pounds of pork a week, they need a bit more space. On the truck, they heat up the food and put together the sandwiches, which go for $8 a pop.

Washburn and Schafer are thinking about expanding their menu to include soups and salads in the future, but for now they’re sticking with sandwiches and coming up with specials—like the Niman Ranch boneless short rib sandwich braised in coffee, Guinness Stout and chipotles, and served with watercress, pickled red onions and horseradish sauce—to keep things feeling new. “We are having so much fun doing what we are doing right now,” says Schafer. “It’s just so much better than we ever thought it would be.”

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