Fernandez: Shooting for success at RocketJ’s

by Peter Fernandez

RocketJ’s, Northfield’s summer-time tradition on wheels, is once again serving up moveable feasts on Main Street, right next to the Convenience Plus Liquor Store. Jerry & Gail Bean, the proprietors of RocketJ’s, are, as usual, parked in what was once Bean’s Chevrolet parking lot. Just behind the Food Truck relaxes the retired & aging business office and showrooms, where from 1950 through 2009, Corvettes, Monzas, El Caminos, Uplanders, Impalas, Bel Airs. Astros, Aerovettes, pickup trucks and more were serviced and sold. Bean’s Chevrolet, founded by Jerry’s father Babe Bean, was run by the elder with the help of sons, Mark, Michael, Matt, and, well, sometimes, Jerry.

Al’s Fries & Beansie’s Bus in Burlington may taste better than McDonald’s and Burger King, but Rocket J’s can only be found on Route 12. And RocketJ’s foodage easily rivals the flavorful fare of these other better known dens of delicious decadence.

Bean, a 1971 grad of Northfield High, got his culinary start at The Lodge at Smuggler’s Notch in Stowe because after years of working with the family business, Babe told him “to take the afternoon off and look for a job.” It seemed auto sales, maintenance, and repair were not on the youngest Bean boy’s future menu.

Working his way up from cook to assistant chef to head chef and to eventually running a kitchen on a private yacht owned by the Sterns of Pittsburgh, Jerry decided to take to the road again. Still, this time, he would be his own boss inside a 4-wheeling moveable feast, the American Food Truck.

According to a recent Google source, “more than 2.5 billion people eat street food from a food truck every day!” After purchasing a used truck, lots of hamburg, hot dogs, and condiments, as well as a rocket-like drop tank from off a Canadian fighter jet, Bean was in business. That’s what you see on the roof of his wagon, the nostalgic allure of a forties pin-up girl smiling down at you. “That wouldn’t fly in Washington DC,” one of his customers told Bean. And Certainly not Seattle, Portland, Burlington & Montpelier, where elitism has squeezed the mustard of fun and the relish of joy right out of a wholesome adage, “To each his own.”

RocketJ’s birth and rise came in 1984 at Dascomb Rowe Ball Park in Waterbury, where Bean slugged out cheeseburgers, hotdogs, fries, onion rings, sausage subs, fried clams, etc., and he is still doing it today.

The first Rocket J’s truck

If you are a child of the sixties and enjoyed Saturday morning cartoons, you would know that Rocket J. Squirrel was the aviator pal of Bullwinkle J. Moose of the iconic Bullwinkle and Rocky TV show. Infused with edgy social comment and political humor, its heady stuff sailed over pointy little noggins, but our two animated heroes always seemed to get the drop on Boris Badenof, Natasha, and Mr. Big. It wasn’t Mad magazine, but flying squirrels and mooses made for funny American narratives, where anthropo- morphic tricksters foiled sinister Cold War Commie spies.

According to Bean, if it were not for his better half, wife Gail, RocketJ’s would not be up and running. And, sometimes, when it gets busy, sons, Jeremiah, 31, a UPS manager, and Joe, 29, a construction guy, help.

It was in 1872 in Providence, Rhode Island that the very first food truck appeared in the US. Walter Scott, no, not Ivanhoe’s author Sir Walter Scott, but the food vendor who first parked his covered wagon in front of a local newspaper office. There, through pre-cut windows, he sold sandwiches, pies, and coffee to the inky pressmen, scrubbed scribes, and salespeople.

The first nocturnal lunch wagon was invented in 1888 by Thomas H. Buckley, a Massa- chusetts lunch-counter kid who named his wagon the Owl. Buckley overlooked its building and went on to successfully assemble many lunch wagon prototypes. In one decade, Buckley’s food wagons were serving consumers in 275 towns clear across the United States.

According to the NY Times, “Buckley’s wagons often had colored windows, mahogany woodwork, ornaments, sinks, refrigerators, and cooking stoves. He also introduced fancy wagons with silver and brass embellishments, plate-glass mirrors, and gorgeous mosaics.”

Sadly, Buckley died in 1903 at 35, but his Worcester Lunch Car Company kept on wheeling and dealing happy meals. During the early 1900s, the Lunch Wagon soon became the first stationary dining car and inspired the iconic street corner restaurant as defined by Edward Hopper’s famous 1940 painting, NIGHTHAWKS.

Since 2008, there has been a food truck heyday and it all started in, of course, Los Angeles. For some time, the Food Truck was shamefully referred to as a “roach coach,” and its faire criticized as pedestrian fast food, but that has all changed since LA-based entrepreneurs, Caroline Shin, Mark Manguera and chef Roy Choi fused Korean BBQ with Mexican tacos. Today top-quality dishes are available and with the advent of social media, marketing food wares has never been better.

RocketJ’s hours can be found on their website.

The author is a children’s book author and Vermont resident.

Categories: History

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