When he got started in the food truck business, Johnny’s Pork Roll owner John Yarusi put his branding and marketing background to work, and it was clearly the right move. Starting today, May 19, Johnny’s Pork Roll will be at 7th and the boardwalk in Asbury Park every weekend. Then, starting Monday, June 19, the truck will be there daily through Labor Day, from 10 a.m. til 8 p.m. Jayne Chacko spoke with Yarusi, owner and founder of Johnny’s Pork Roll, to get the real deal on this cherished Jersey meat, and on his popular black and white food truck.
JERSEY BITES: How did you decide on the name for your food truck?
JOHN YARUSI: My name is John, and my grandma and friends call me Johnny. [However,] Johnny’s Pork Roll is an homage to John Taylor, but nobody ever makes that connection whatsoever. It’s John Taylor’s Pork Roll, hence Johnny’s Pork Roll, because I only sell Taylor product. I don’t sell anything else. I will never deviate from the Taylor.
Talk to me a little more about pork roll.
Pork roll is one of those things that you take for granted. As we joke, pork roll deficiency is a real problem. You can’t get pork roll out of New Jersey. It’s expanded a little further. When I went to graduate school in Idaho and brought pork roll back after Christmas break, people were like, “What is this?” They asked if it was Canadian bacon, which is actually ham, I told them, “No, it’s pork roll.”
What’s your most popular menu item?
The pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich is still the number one ordered sandwich. But of my eight specialty sandwiches, the Hawaiian is our most popular. It’s pork roll, pineapple, Swiss cheese, sweet barbecue and sriracha. It’s a balance of sweet and salty. That’s probably my favorite one, too.
What’s your favorite menu item to cook?
Grilled cheese. We have a pork roll truck grilled cheese that’s provolone, sharp cheddar, white American, bacon, pork roll and tomatoes on rye. It’s a bit more labor intensive to make but I love making it. Our grilled cheese is a big seller in the summer, which is nice for vegetarians.
How would you explain your food truck to someone who isn’t familiar?
Often times when people come to the truck they don’t understand how it works. We’ve seen food trucks on shows and in the movie Chef and we think we know how it is. But some people ask for food to go when everything is packaged and ready to go. Sometimes someone will order and stand right in front of the window, but they have to move to the side so the next person can order. Long lines are always going to be a part of food trucks—I’m always surprised when someone waits 45 minutes in line for a sandwich. I think people are getting more accustomed to how food trucks work. It’s different than restaurants. Someone who stands in line at a food truck for 20 minutes and then eats their food in their car or on a park bench is different than someone who sits down in a restaurant to be waited on. I don’t think one hurts the other; I think it’s a completely different customer experience.
What’s something about the business that might not come to mind for most people?
I work so hard to keep everything clean. It’s like an obsession. I love when people say “Wow you have such a clean truck” more than when they compliment the food or the idea. Sometimes I’ll get a good line cook and half the time they don’t last because they’re not used to having people look at them while they cook. Customers see everything at a food truck so you have to be cognizant of everything. Bartenders seem to be the most logical translation of what we do. They’re used to taking orders, dealing with the person, and getting the money right there. It’s hard to find the right kind of people to work on a food truck. Being on a food truck is like theater. It’s not just serving the food, but the whole experience. For my personality, it fits me like a glove because I love that kind of stuff. I don’t want to be stuck in a kitchen not talking to anybody.
Do you have any advice for aspiring food truck owners?
When I say this, please don’t think I’m sounding jerky. But if you’re going to tell me you’re a really good cook, make really creative food, going to open your own food truck, and make different things every day, I’m going to say very simply: Good luck with that. It takes so long. I think the food trucks that really excel have a very defined offering. Case in point, the Empanada Guy. The truck clearly states what they sell. I really think food trucks really have to think about what they’re offering and how they position themselves. Instead of doing many things, do two or three things and do it really well.
Can you talk a bit about the aesthetic for the business and your sandwiches?
When we started, I made the decision that everything on the truck is black and white. I don’t use yellow or orange American cheese, I only use white American cheese. Now we’re known for it. And there’s a way we build the sandwich where we have a base of pork roll, then cheese, then egg, then another piece of cheese, then two pieces of pork roll on top of that. Everything balances around the sandwich. And when I cut the sandwich, I call it “the reveal.” You have to tell people something’s good even before they eat it. You have to put the thought in their head that it’s going to be the best sandwich they’ve ever had. I don’t like sloppy sandwiches. Also, I’m a stickler about how we make things on our truck. Say what you want about any fast food restaurants: at least their crappyness is consistent. It’s always the same. Food trucks can be all over the place. I’ve seen it happen: I’ve gotten something from one guy and then a year later I’ll get it again and it’s not good because the same guy didn’t make it or that cook wasn’t there. Some people come onto the truck and want to change things. And I say, “No, don’t.” We have to stick to our little plan. We focus on delivering a very consistent experience when it comes to our sandwiches.
What’s your next move?
We just launched Johnnyporkroll.com and now we have an e-commerce platform. This fall, we’re going to start shipping and selling pork roll to people. I always have people coming to the truck saying, “I have to ship this out to my son-in-law.” Pork roll is a unique product and, more importantly, it’s a Jersey product. We’re just tapping into all these emotional connections with people.
NOTE: Be on the lookout for a second truck in Asbury Park, starting June 30, at 4th and Union.