by Katherine Hensley
District professionals are by now accustomed to the daily throng of food trucks that lines the city streets, from Farragut Square to the National Mall. But on July 5, among the hot dogs and Greek gyros, the lunch-goers were presented with a new option: DC’s first full-time kosher food truck.
Brooklyn Sandwich Co. is the brainchild of Rabbi Yudi Steiner, director of Jewish Colonials Chabad at George Washington University. But the operation could not have been made a reality without the relentless drive of rising GW sophomore Carly Meisel.
For years, Steiner had dreamed of starting a kosher food truck—a dream born of necessity when the university removed the majority of kosher food options on campus about five years ago. The original plan was to have an alumnus fund the project and find a third person to oversee day-to-day operations. But because he never found someone to operate the truck, he abandoned the idea—until he met Meisel.
Meisel, an observant Jew from Newton, Mass., connected with Steiner through mutual family friends before beginning her freshman year to discuss maintaining her Jewish life at college. The hardest part, Steiner told her, would be finding kosher food to eat.
Last October, after weeks of cold sandwiches and vegetarian fare, Meisel approached Steiner again. Together, with no experience in the food industry, the pair started learning everything they could. “We researched for a couple of months, spoke to a lot of professionals and read books on the topic,” said Meisel. “We familiarized ourselves with the entire process.”
The two decided to split the responsibilities of launching their truck. Steiner took care of finding someone to build the truck sourcing supplies and ensuring they had the proper licensing, while Meisel tackled market research, community outreach and social media. For food truck and culinary expertise, they enlisted the help of Dylan Kough, founder of the DC-based DK Food Truck Consulting and Solutions, and Sam Akselrod, a Brooklyn artisan chef.
Kough started his consulting group after launching his own truck, Smoking Kow BBQ, to help other people in the business of mobile dining. He was the one who steered Steiner and Meisel in the direction of serving deli food.
Meisel said they were considering everything before they met Kough, from a healthy salad bar to Asian stir-fry. “We told him that we were thinking about this type of food or that type of food, and he took one look at Rabbi Yudi and said, ‘Hold on a second, why aren’t you doing Jewish food?’” said Meisel.
Once they settled on the cuisine, it was time to send their menu to Akselrod, who is now the Brooklyn Sandwich Co.’s culinary director. “Rabbi Yudi and I put together a very big deli menu, like what you would expect in your neighborhood New York deli, including knishes, matzo ball soup and pastrami,” said Meisel. “We sent Sam a very basic draft and he sent us back an intensely flavorful, exciting menu complete with recipes and ingredients.”
David Spier, a GW alumnus, donated a majority of the funds to help launch the non-profit venture. But Meisel also raised over $16,000 through the crowdfunding website Givebutter—a chunk of the $70,000 total needed, the fundraiser text said, to make the project self-sustaining. The entire GW community helped make the truck possible, Meisel said, including expertise from students majoring in accounting and specializing in start-ups.
The Brooklyn Sandwich Co. is run by students with the exception of a few culinary workers. As a non-profit project of Jewish Colonials Chabad, the revenue from the business will go into continuing to serve kosher food and, hopefully, funding Chabad events, said Steiner.
Now, when customers approach the brown and gold truck, Steiner jovially takes their orders while Yassel Backman, whose father runs the University of Maryland Chabad, assists. When asked on a hot Monday afternoon if his is a full-time position, Backman, brow furrowed, immediately looks to Steiner, who says, “I think I hired you full-time.” The pair busily fills orders together, but Steiner’s droll, easygoing personality keeps customers smiling.
Some customers are observant Jews who keep kosher —like Reeven Nathan, 23, an intern for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who’s also training to swim the English Channel. The truck’s offerings meet both his religious restrictions and his nutritional needs for training. He walks away with two sandwiches.
Michael Krasna, who also works for the foundation, said they like the prices at the Brooklyn Sandwich Co. better than Char Bar, a kosher restaurant just down the street from where the truck is parked on the corner of 18th and L. Customers can get one of the three sandwiches offered on the menu, a drink and a side for less than $15.
But others simply like the selection, which puts some subtle spins on tradition—a pretzel bun for a turkey sandwich, a chipotle aioli on your knish. Crystal Levy, 34, isn’t Jewish, but decided to check out the variety the truck has to offer after hearing about it through friends. And then there was the Reuben fan Brauilo Britos, a 25-year-old from Uruguay, who simply wanted to try the Brooklyn Sandwich Co.’s version of the classic sandwich.
But the truck’s original purpose remains a point of pride. “I think that there is going to be a lot of Jewish pride that we have a quality food truck that is kosher,” Steiner said. “It will be a boon for our organization, Jewish Colonials Chabad, as people will be interacting with our project on a daily basis.”
Now that the truck is on the streets, both Steiner and Meisel are concerned with improving the operation. “I think what we need to work on now is to make sure that we maintain our awareness so that people are familiar with where we are going to be and that we are going to be there,” said Steiner. But the community’s warm welcome is a source of optimism. “If we can do what we did the last two weeks for the foreseeable future then this project will be a resounding success,” he said.
To find the daily location of the Brooklyn Sandwich Co. truck, you can follow them ton Twitter @bklynsandwichco or go to https://www.facebook.com/brooklynsandwichco/.