ENFIELD, Conn. (AP) — At 3:30 in the afternoon, with the sun shining high in a bright blue late summer sky and ducks gliding placidly across Freshwater Pond in the heart of Thompsonville, Brett Johnson gets to work in his 18-by-8½-foot portable office — his food truck.
Soundtracked by the steady hum of a generator, Johnson fills metal containers with shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheese before turning to the stove, where he heats up flatbreads with a coating of olive oil and roasted garlic.
Johnson, 56, of Ellington, has 30 minutes until the weekly Enfield Farmers Market opens up, and he, like the other vendors setting up their temporary shops on Main Street, hopes the nice weather portends some good foot traffic.
Johnson is the chef/owner of the Angry Skillet food truck, which offers up "the hottest eats in the Northeast," according to its slogan.
Like Enfield's foray into allowing food trucks in town, Johnson is new to the "mobile food-vending" industry. Though no stranger to cooking, Johnson had what he calls a "corporate job" before this, working as a chef manager for the CulinArt Group, which provides dining services to corporations, higher education institutions, private schools, and senior living communities, according to its website.
Most recently, Johnson oversaw eight employees at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield's Wallingford campus, where he and his staff provided breakfast and lunch options to employees Monday through Friday. Prior to that, Johnson spent 20 years providing similar service to the former Stanley Works based in New Britain.
While those positions enabled him to do some cooking, like preparing soups, entrees, and operating a deli station, Johnson said there was "too much paperwork" associated with managing.
"I'd rather chef more than manage," he said.
Johnson grew up around restaurants, as his parents owned one when he was growing up. He started working in kitchens at age 12, and all told, he's worked in more than 50 kitchens. Over the years, he "hoarded" kitchen equipment with the idea of starting his own food venture someday.
When the Monday-Friday routine became too "same-old" for him, he began to put his plan into action. He started looking at food trucks rather than brick-and-mortar setups because food trucks require far less overhead costs, he said.
Johnson found his food truck, or rather, his food trailer, online. It was a taco truck owned by a Mexican restaurant in Portland, Maine. Johnson traded in his car for a Ford F-350 truck, and on New Year's Eve this past year, drove to Maine with his wife, Sonia, to retrieve his new restaurant on wheels.
After securing a used generator from an online seller on the West Coast, Johnson was off and running. The trailer was in great shape, requiring little more than the removal of some stickers off the interior walls and a good cleaning.
Johnson then set to work developing his menu. A fan of spicier food, Johnson wanted to offer dishes that were unique and tasty, yet universally popular and not overly difficult to prepare.
His offerings consist mostly of grilled flatbreads, which come topped with an array of choices ranging from Sriracha Buffalo Chicken to Shaved Philly Steak to BBQ Pulled Pork to Broccoli and Garlic.
Johnson rounded out the menu by including a favorite of Sonia's — "Fluffa Nutta Fried Dough Bites," which features the heavenly blend of the famous marshmallow topping mixed with peanut butter sauce on top of fried dough bites.
Sides of French fries are on the menu, and Johnson also added a cheeseburger option based on customer demand.
Johnson said his sister-in-law, a graphic artist based in New York City, helped him with his logo, branding, and social media presence, which includes a website, a Facebook page, and eventually, an Instagram account.
In April, he was finally ready to take the leap and quit his job. His timing coincided perfectly with Enfield's, as town officials announced on April 28 that, after more than a year-and-a-half of deliberations and ironing kinks out, the permitting process to allow mobile food vendors to sell food at nine approved public sites around town was open.
Since that time, Johnson is the only person to complete the process to operate a food truck in Enfield, a process that includes securing a food service license from the North Central District Health Department, obtaining a mobile food vendor license from the town's Building Inspection Department, and completing a background check with the Enfield Police Department.
Once those steps were completed — Johnson enthused that he scored a 97 out of 100 on his health inspection — he was able to start applying for daily vending permits with the town.
Johnson said he has worked a few days at the Hazardville Park location, located on the east side of School Street, but has mostly kept to the farmers market and summer festivals in the area.
Johnson has hit his share of snags along the way, some of them par for the course for being a pioneer of sorts in a town new to the food truck game. He's been questioned about his credentials by an Enfield police officer, and a resident has threatened to report him for "illegally" vending during one of his permitted days at the Hazardville location.
Other issues have popped up. During the Stafford Springs Blues Fest in early August, his generator — a dual-fuel model that he had been powering with propane — started giving him problems, and now he has to use gas to power it.
Driving the rig has also been an adjustment for Johnson, and tight streets near some of Enfield's other approved vending locations is one of the reasons Johnson has only operated at the Hazardville location besides the farmers market. He said lack of foot traffic at the Hazardville location has been a problem, as has heat inside the rig — one day it reached 107 degrees. Significant summer rainfall has also impacted the amount of days he's been able to operate.
"It's a big learning curve," he said.
Back at the farmers market, Johnson is joined by Sonia, who often helps him take orders after she leaves her day job at Lego. Sonia said she's taken to her role, joking that she gets to "bark orders and take the money."
A self-described extrovert with a bubbly personality, she said the new venture has been "an interesting ride so far," but overall she's enjoyed it.
"It's been a lot of fun, we're meeting a lot of people, and I like watching him in action," she said.
Laurie Rosner, who manages the farmers market, said it's been a great addition having Johnson's food truck there this summer.
"It's exciting to see a food truck at the farmers market," she said. "People are excited to see them, too."
Shortly after 4 p.m., farmers market attendees began to wander over to the food truck. The Fluffa Nutta bites were a popular choice. Somers resident Ann Levesque treated her grandson Kayden, 8, to the sweet treat, and Sonia playfully cautioned him "no more sugar for the rest of the day for you."
Local resident Stephanie Vaughn and her three young children enjoyed their Fluffa Nutta bites on a grassy hill looking out on Freshwater Pond. Vaughn, a big time peanut fan, and her children, die-hard fluff fans, enjoyed the treats.
"It's odd, but it's a very good dish," she said.
Later in the evening, customers continued to approach intermittently, with many opting to take their orders home for dinner. Local resident Robin Johnson opted to bring home a pulled pork flatbread and a cheeseburger.
"It smells good," she said. "I'm not cooking tonight."
Sonia's sister, Maryse Kettle, and their father, Renald Fauteux, also swung by to support the food truck, with Fauteux sporting an Angry Skillet trucker hat. Kettle described Johnson as a "great chef" who cooks all the food for the large family Easter celebrations they have. She said they are "very lucky" to have a chef in the family.
"I hope he does well," she said.
Johnson said he's booked a space to vend at the upcoming Four Town Fair, which takes place Sept. 14-17 in Somers. The event, which draws thousands of people over its four days, will be a proving ground of sorts for him, he said.
"The Four Town Fair will give me a good barometer for how I'm going to do," he said.
After that, Johnson will try to do a few more festivals before the colder weather hits. In the winter, he'll try to do some catering, but he may have to find some supplemental work to get by.
During the offseason, Johnson said he'll take stock of how this first year has gone, make any improvements needed, and then "re-boot" in the spring.
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