Last July, Matthew Lewis debuted his Creole food truck, Where Ya At, at a Mobile Chowdown event, quickly finding himself at the business end of a line that snaked throughout the venue. Since then, "Where Ya At Matt" and his burgundy truck have been serving up po'boys, beignets, gumbo and other fare from his Louisiana upbringing in neighborhoods across the city. A veteran of places like Toulouse Petit, Restaurant Zoe and Canlis, Lewis's food has earned praise in Seattle Magazine and a recent appearance on the Cooking Channel's Eat Street.
Seattle has seen a proliferation of food trucks in recent years, but Lewis is one of the few newer arrivals to achieve the same level of notoriety and rabid fan-ship as the city's first generation, including Skillet, Marination Mobile and Maximus Minimus. Eater recently sat down with Lewis to talk about surviving his first year on the roads.
Why a truck and not a restaurant? I started thinking about it right after Marination Mobile started. I met [co-owners] Kamala and Roz through a friend of a friend. I saw what they were doing, and I saw the following they had. Kamala was nice enough to share information. The thing that I like most about how I grew up was the food, and a lot of the things in the food were simple. It wasn't like I needed a restaurant to do that.
I talked to my dad and my grandfather about it. They’re the majority investors in my company and I’ve actually already started to pay them back. They didn’t understand what Facebook and Twitter were, but I explained it and they supported it.
Is there anything you’ve had to tweak or re-tool since you’ve started out? Oh yeah. How long do we have for this interview again? That’s a daily thing. Part of the tweaking is staff—yeah, I’ve fired some people. Food-wise, one of the easier tweaks is learning how many shrimp or oysters you actually fry at one time for a po’boy. The busier we get, the easier it gets, which is awesome. But if we’re slow, I don’t want to be sitting on a pound of shrimp in a pan.
What else have you learned about handling a crowd? If you're lucky enough to have people follow your truck, it becomes harder and harder to produce enough food to feed everybody. Before I started I would follow trucks like Skillet and Marination on Facebook. People would say, "I can’t believe they didn’t announce sooner they were running out of something." And here's the crazy part ? at the time I was like, yeah, that’s a valid point.
Now that I run a truck?that’s crazy. You’re just glad that you can keep going and chugging and the wheels aren’t coming off, especially when the line is 70 deep. The customers who really love your food and come out all the time are like, “oh baby, I know that shit’s good. I’m surprised you had it this long,” versus people who talk smack on the web about why you ran out of something.
What do you still need to work on? I love my kids, my menu, so much that I don’t like to take items off. So today, for instance, we ran 18 items on the truck. Compare that with some other trucks that are really popular and do a lot of business, and they have three to five. I do 18. That’s crazy. But as soon as you take that one thing off the menu, you have people talking smack on Facebook.
You do have an incredibly vocal group of followers, at least on social media. It’s very endearing to me. In a way it’s a very extended family, which is how I grew up. They’re your mom, your dad, your aunt, your uncle who will tell you how it is. They don’t pull any punches. They’ll come up and tell you, “I think you should do it like this.” But they’re also the same people who, if someone talks smack about you on Twitter, they’re going to respond. Which is awesome, you know?
So what’s it like getting reviewed in the more traditional sense? We’ve been lucky enough not to have a quote-unquote ‘bad review’ where they just hack you to pieces. But one review said the thing to miss was the pork sandwich. For me, you can have your opinion and I will take any feedback there is. But there are certain things I feel are pretty much dialed. And the pork?when a writer takes one of your hottest consistently best-selling dishes and says it’s the thing to miss, I question their palate. It’s not my ego speaking ; it’s my audience that speaks. We sell hands-down 40 or 50 of those a day.
What’s the most difficult food to execute on a truck? The barbecue shrimp. It’s a simple dish, but it’s a dish that should be done a la minute every time. There’s some things on the truck, depending on what volume you’re doing, that you can’t do a la minute. You’re constantly monitoring the shrimp to make sure they’re not overcooked.
You seem to be doing more events lately. How much can you actually expand your presence given you’re just one truck? When we do other events, we have certain dollar marks we have to hit. You have to beat by far what I would make in a lunch spot for me to pull out of that lunch spot to cater your event. We’ve got angry fans when we’re not at the place we’re supposed to be. Not everyone follows Twitter or Facebook or checks the website. We’ve done events with Microsoft that were way too big to pass up. We posted weeks ahead of time that we wouldn’t be in our regular Georgetown spot that day. Of course the next week people are all, “where were you?”
Also, you personally are just as much part of the experience as the food. Right now we’re running seven days a week. I would love to be there every day, but we’re almost a year in, and up until two weeks ago, I didn’t have a day off. My mom’s retirement party was two weeks ago and that was the first three days I have not been on the truck. And I heard about it.
It’s tough, it’s a juggling act, but it’s not work. It’s passion. I equate it to having your number called in the Super Bowl and catching the hail Mary winning pass. I love feeding people and sharing that part of myself with them.