Joshua Henderson and Danny Sizemore have two things going right for them today: The sun’s out, and they haven’t been towed.
Since they hatched their idea for gutting an old Airstream trailer and turning it into a mobile gourmet kitchen called Skillet Street Food in August 2007, Henderson and Sizemore have weathered enough mishaps to buy themselves good karma for the rest of their careers. Today, for example, the credit-card machine is down. Not to worry, pipes up Robin, one of the cooks jotting orders for the day. “We’re taking IOUs. Just pay next week,” she says. How can she be so confident in a mistrustful age? Well…the machine’s been down for weeks. “So far we’ve had 100 percent returns.” She smiles.
The dysfunctional credit-card processor is just the latest of a host of troubles for the ambitious Skillet, which has gotten a lot of adulatory attention in the national press for its high-end comfort food, even as the two guys at the wheel can’t always quite get it together. And their oversharing, via frequent e-mails, has been part of the entertainment. Sizemore and Henderson have been shut down by the Department of Health, had their support truck towed, and had their trailer break. And they’ve documented it all for their fans.
The towing incident, for example, occurred when Henderson left the truck in a no-parking spot one night at a bar. He came back the next morning and it was gone. Somebody stole our truck, he thought, and dashed off a press release: “Skillet alert. We unfortunately have to cancel our Ballard stop today. Our support truck was stolen last night, along with all of our pots, pans, equipment, and food. We have sent our crack team of investigators on the trail, as we believe it to be a competitor trying to figure out the secret bacon jam recipe.”
Then Henderson thought to call the Seattle Police Department.
New press release: “Josh left the truck in a no-parking area/towing area…came back to get the truck in the morning…and thought it had been stolen…called the cops, they said…ummmmmm…it was impounded…Josh felt dumb…end of story.”
Nevertheless, they stride onward, dishing out good food for a pretty cheap price. And that, friends, is Skillet’s saving grace: The food is ridiculous, the best $10 meal you’ve ever had.
For instance, during a recent week, the trailer was serving maple-braised Oregon pork belly with a fried egg and a cornmeal waffle as a breakfast entrée. Lunch that week was “the burger”: grilled Wagyu beef, cambozola cheese, bacon jam, and arugula on a brioche bun, with a pile of hand-cut fries. It’s seven bucks. There’s more: San Juan Islands halibut tacos, lemongrass-braised pork “sammys,” and a few other options. If Skillet’s food has a shortcoming, it’s that the burgers are more the slider variety than, say, an Earthquake Burger. They’re little guys. They look small, but once they dig around in your stomach a little, they’re filling enough. And there’s always plenty of fries.
With a few exceptions—the bananas, for instance—Skillet’s ingredients come from Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Henderson and Sizemore’s pride and joy is the bacon jam. It may sound a bit strange, but trust me, you’ll like it. It’s Henderson’s creation, and he refuses to disclose anything about its history or ingredients.
So far, Skillet parks one day a week at each of four locations: 202 N. Terry Ave. near South Lake Union; in SoDo near the Starbucks headquarters; on Capitol Hill at 13th Avenue and Marion Street; and in Fremont at 132 N. Canal St. The Fremont location has only been in service for a week, and required the sign-off of a half-dozen landlords, because it, like all Skillet’s stops except South Lake Union, is on private property. South Lake Union is a bit of a free-for-all, Henderson says, and no one seems to mind the shiny silver trailer nestled among a stand of nondescript warehouses.
Henderson says that the health-department issues were all a misunderstanding. He and Sizemore were under the impression they could forgo the need for a permit by forming a private club. So for a while they sold lifetime-membership cards for a buck apiece. It didn’t work. Private clubs are restricted to organizations who won’t admit the entire public, explains Public Health spokesperson Hilary Karasz. “If you’re selling food in a restaurant-type format, you need to get a health permit.” Skillet is fully permitted now and “we’re good buddies with the [health department],” Henderson says. The incident would have been a minor bump in the road for Skillet, except their trailer popped a seam at the same time, forcing them to close for a few weeks while they outfitted the Airstream with a flatbed trailer.
None of which has sapped Skillet’s key ingredient: Henderson and Sizemore’s optimism. Their press releases address the “Skillet Nation” and are heavily garnished with exclamation points. Also, neither was dragged into the food business. Henderson graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1998, and Sizemore tried to study landscape architecture at Purdue before he realized he didn’t like computers. He promptly switched his major to restaurant management. When he ran into Henderson through a mutual friend, the duo started kicking around the idea of a grill cart or something similar.
But, Henderson says, “We quickly realized that the city would slap our hands on that. The city of Seattle is really kinda not welcoming when it comes to doing something unique and out of the box. Especially something that takes up part of the sidewalk.”
Regardless of the early difficulties, the operation seems to be picking up nicely. Tentative plans are in the works to start a separate trailer on the Eastside and also to open a takeout window in a building downtown at Fourth Avenue South and South Main Street. It’ll be a lot of work. Right now, Henderson says they need to hire “like 10” people to augment the two cooks, Robin and Meredith, who help out. “We never expected this kind of response,” he says.
Skillet has now been featured in Time and Food and Wine, and lines typically snake down the sidewalk at lunchtime.
One recent Wednesday, a man at the back of the line makes small talk as he waits. As we twiddle our thumbs in the sunshine, I ask how he heard about Skillet. “An hour ago, a co-worker brought some back,” he says. “It smelled so good I had to go see it for myself.”
Jonathan Kauffman is on vacation.