Did the hurricane affect you as a homeowner?
Yes. We live in a five-story condo building. We have basement storage that got ruined. We probably had four feet of water in the basement. My car was trashed. It was parked on the street, and it got ruined. That was it. We got off kind of lightly. Insurance covered most things. It was a good chance to get rid of a lot of stuff. You know you collect things over the years in the basement that you’re never, ever going to use again, so it was a good chance to get rid of a lot of stuff.
What do you like most about living in Hoboken?
The walkability. I’ve learned that in America, everyone has cars. Outside of the big cities, it’s a vast country. You have to drive everywhere. If you live in suburbia, everyone has to drive everywhere. I like the fact you can walk in Hoboken. It’s a walkable city.
In the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy, how did you prepare? Were you worried?
Well, because of Irene the year before, where they threatened Armageddon and it never happened, we got complacent. See, the year before we were very well prepared and then nothing happened. I’ve learned, like the TV, they do like to hype up bad weather, and they’re very disappointed when two feet of snow doesn’t hit, or anything. We got complacent. We stocked up on some supplies, just basic foods, mini flashlights, batteries, a world’s radio, but we didn’t put our car in a garage, because we thought it would be fine. We thought we were far enough from what was a proper flood zone in Hoboken that we wouldn’t be affected. A rookie mistake.
Tell me about your experience as the hurricane was taking place.
Again, we decided to stay put because we thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. A lot of people left town. It started raining heavily. We didn’t think anything of it. Then someone texted me, saying, “Hoboken is flooding”. We responded, “No, it’s not, everything’s fine.” It was one of those things where everything just seemed normal and then, I think what happened was our fire alarm went off, in our building. We went downstairs, to see what was happening, and then opened the front door, and there was this much water in the street [gestures to waist-high]. Because of the high tide, coinciding with the heavy rain, it filled up very quickly. It was too late; there was no way of getting out. It became insane. I thought, we live on the 5th floor, there’s no way we’re going to be affected or flooded out. There’s nothing you can do. My wife was panicking. But I was like, well, I guess we’ll see what happens. I thought, by the morning, whatever flooding there was, would be gone, but that was wrong. Very wrong. We learned the next day. We were without power for, I think, five nights.
Did you stay in your home the entire time?
For about day three, I think. It was probably two full days where the streets were still impassable, and day three the waters finally receded a bit. We have a friend who lives in Jersey City Heights who had power and a shower. We went up there for a few days, to freshen up.
How have you gone about the process of recovery and rebuilding?
The insurance company was great. They paid us for our car, in full, in three days. About three weeks later, we got a replacement car. Then, I got inspired to do the food truck. It wasn’t so much rebuilding as opposed to a clean slate, you know, like a new start. I didn’t get the idea immediately. I mean there were food trucks after, in the week after, they were great, and I gained ten pounds in a week. We couldn’t cook at home, I had a grill, I was barbecuing stuff, I cooked all the food I could, the chicken and stuff that would go bad. Then I was just walking around going from truck to truck, getting free food. It was a couple of weeks later in a restaurant. We’re having dinner with friends, the day after Thanksgiving. We were talking about Sandy again, and our miserable lives, what we wanted to do, and what could we do to change things. My friend and I said, “what about those food trucks?” And so that was it. From that point forward, that was my entire focus.
What did you think of the federal government, the governor’s response, FEMA?
From what I saw, they were pretty good. Like I say, I had five days to walk around town. I think there were twelve thousand people, in the projects, who had no means of leaving town and got stranded. They had a ton of National Guard. The response was overwhelming. They also had cops and soldiers everywhere. There was a heavy presence. I remember the Red Cross in there. I mean everyone knows the Red Cross, but I can’t say who instigated all the response. Those food trucks were corporate sponsored, but the response was impressive, I thought. I could see Hoboken presence, and making sure people were, you know, safe and healthy.
As for the other stuff, it’s still going on, right? The governor is arguing with the mayor, who is arguing with the federal. They’re trying to get more funding. I think they recently got approved again, but they want to add more emergency pumps for Hoboken, and I think it got approved for federal funding. God made sea levels for a reason. You can fight nature, but there’s only so much you can do. You live below sea level, you’re going to get flooded.
How has Hurricane Sandy shaped your community? Do you think it has brought you closer?
I’d say divided. I’d say between the haves and the have-nots. I think it brought to light that there are a lot of poor people here. Even though Hoboken’s become very gentrified. It’s become very expensive, especially around here. You need to be a high net-worth individual to live here, but you have the resources to escape if anything bad happens. It may not be divisive, but it’s highlighted that there are basically two communities. There’s the old Hoboken, people who, for whatever reason, unfortunately they have to live in local authority housing, and there’s people who’ve got unlimited resources, who won’t be affected. Insurance premiums went up, obviously flood insurance, that keeps going up. That’s inevitable, you expect that. I’m the treasurer for our condo association, so I see all these numbers.
It’s like anything. When something big, bad happens, immediately there’s solidarity. I remember going around, people had charging stations, people who had power were having extension cords upon extension cords, and you’d have people charging their iPhones. In the immediate aftermath, it’s definitely tight-knit. Are there long-term effects? Probably not. People forget, go back to their lives.
Tell me more about your business, Dark Side of the Moo.
A couple of weeks after Sandy, when things got back to normal, I got this idea. I thought, this is a great town for that. It’s a good demographic, it’s a small town, it’s navigable, it’s walkable, so where I am people can find me. I started without having a menu, which is kind of important, right? When I actually got on the road, my first thing was pulled pork, just regular food. Immediately, I thought, this is boring, this is not going to get me rich and famous, or change the world. What am I adding? I’m not bringing anything new apart from there was a lack of good pulled pork in Hoboken.
I started looking around the internet, and I found a couple of guys out, there’s a guy in Chicago and a guy in Colorado, they do, like, game sausages, exotic meats, so I thought let’s try that, so I tried alligator sausage. It was a big hit, so I was like, I think I’ve found my niche. I started with one small cart, the first year. I actually started in March of 2013. Sandy was in November, 2012. By the time I got the cart fitted out it was March when I started. It took awhile to get going, like anything. You learn a lot, you learn a lot on the job. The first year it was all that, just learning, making mistakes, and tried not to get too far in debt. Then, what really changed was January of last year, I think it was the Star-Ledger was doing features on food trucks, and they highlighted me as one of the seven best in Jersey, so that changed everything.
That got me recognition. You can have the best thing in the world, but if no one knows you exist, you know, if you have no marketing budget, then it’s futile. That changed a lot for me, that got me noticed. You start getting catering jobs and events have you come because you’ll be a big draw. I got my second vehicle last year, a bigger trailer, the first one is too small, and this year I plan on getting a truck, with an engine. But you can’t have more than one license in Hoboken, so it’s pointless to have a truck that I can only use outside of town when I already have one I can use in town. It’s a lot of hard work, but I love it. You have to love it, because it is so much hard work, but I do. In summer, it’s the best job in the world; in January, it’s the worst job in the world. People know, it’s seasonal, and you learn to make hay while the sun shines. It’s great, people think it’s the coolest job in the world; you get a lot of credit. People think it’s really cool, they just think you turn up, open the door and start selling, but they don’t see the prep, the cleanup, the constantly shopping, it’s a full-time job. We’re lucky in this area, you have, well, my food is not cheap, well some of it is, but these meats, they’re not easy to come by so you need a certain demographic. I’m lucky to be living here, in this part of the country.
Tell me about your career and lifestyle prior to Hurricane Sandy, and how has that changed.
I worked in finance. My ambition was to become a trader, so I started in at the ground level, in London for this Canadian bank. Then I emigrated to Canada, got transferred, worked my way up, and then eventually I got offered the chance to come to New York and start trading, so that was cool. I traded commodities, precious metals, gold, silver. They’re like a currency, so they’ll trade around the clock. I used to hate always being on call.
Lifestyle, I never wear collared shirts anymore, I don’t miss that. My health improved vastly by doing this. You know, I used to sit staring at three terminals all day, so my prescription went down, I wore glasses since I was thirteen, but last time I got a checkup they said, “your eyes are slightly improved”, because I’m not staring at a screen all day. My heart rate dropped 20 beats, I lost about 15 – 20 pounds. I initially gained an amount of weight, because I was eating everything in sight. I only serve what I like, so, it happens. But you end up working so hard that you just burn it all off. And you get tired of it as well.
I’m freer. I decide when I want to work, but there’s an in-built discipline. I get bored easily, so I always set myself up a target, a challenge, and when I achieve it, I’m done. With this job, the thing is every day is different, so it’s always fresh, you know what I mean, you never know what’s going to happen. Lunch may be great, you get surprises, like I had a festival last weekend, it was insane. I did a record day, and I wasn’t expecting that. And then today, lunch sucked. I was in Hoboken, because I thought it was going to rain. So you know it’s a roller coaster, and it’s hard to temper your emotions. It’s better to expect to be probably disappointed, then you can only be pleasantly surprised, right? It’s the nature of the business. I love my independence, you know. I love being responsible. I love knowing that the work I put in is directly related to what I get paid. I’m always looking to improve what I do, either better ingredients or changing recipes, constantly, yeah, I’m constantly being challenged, I like that.
What do you think are lessons that should be learned for the future from Sandy?
Lessons are for weather people. Don’t just hype it up. When you mean it, make that clear. Complacency will set in again and if they “cry wolf” too many times, people are going to ignore them again. Effective communication would be one lesson. You know they are trying to build the new pumps, but that’s expensive and I don’t know how that’s going to happen, or when that’s going to happen.
Are there any lessons that you may think about in preparation for the next natural disaster, particularly now looking from a business side?
If I knew something like this was coming, I would stock up on a lot of food, not for me in the house, rather I’m talking about to try and help people, stock up on things like propane and gasoline, you don’t think about that. You don’t think there’d be a shortage, but there was. If it happens again, I’ve got two generators and I’ve got ways of helping people. It would be, not nice, but fitting to complete the circle, to help someone. Sandy affected me in a positive way. It’s terrible and hopefully it doesn’t happen, but if it happens again I could give back, so that would be an easy way to directly give back. I would be happy to do that.
Are there any stories associated with the storm that you’d like to share?
Amanda’s. I remember Amanda’s Restaurant, in Hoboken. It’s a really nice restaurant. They were just giving out food. They said the insurance company said we’re going to cover your food, it’s up to you what you do with it. So they could have just thrown it away, but they decided to cook it all and give it away. I had lobster bisque, it was fantastic. You wouldn’t expect that, right, as an emergency ration?
Just, the amount of people that came, people came from everywhere. It’s nice to see, you can be cynical, but I remember JetBlue and Chase, they sponsored a couple of food trucks coming, just to give food out. You could say it’s good PR, but it doesn’t matter, it’s a good thing. Whatever the motive behind it, it’s not a bad thing to try and help out. There was a good feeling of solidarity, like especially getting your phone charged. I just remember being touched by the amount of people who came here. I think the emergency response, the FEMA-related stuff, was more the Army, and batteries, and things like that. A lot of charities were providing food, all around town. There was nothing else to do, you could sit at home in the dark, or just walk around and see what was happening in town and see if anyone’s hurt or needs help, or something.
I think it was a good thing, overall, for me, because it inspired me to a new career, so I can’t say anything bad about it. I got my car trashed, who cares, right? And then the new car I bought was useless for a food truck, but who cares? It was a good thing, one of the best things that’s happened to me. Not to be heartless, but for my life, it was a big turning point.
Other than alligator, what do you serve for lunch?
Wild boar, kangaroo, yak, these are regular items, bison, lamb. I have normal food, like chicken, but I’m always adding like guest meats, if you like. I’ve had camel, llama, antelope, when it gets busier, because this stuff is expensive, you can’t waste it, trust me. In the summer, it’s easier to turn over inventory. I’ve got guinea pig and python and rattlesnake lined up, but I’m waiting for the heat to arrive.
I want to present meats in a different way, as I evolve I’m able to do that. Like I have a pulled wild boar, it’s like pulled pork but Hawaiian style, it’s got ginger and soy, that’s a popular item. Gatordilla is a new item, that’s alligator quesadilla. Again, it’s trying to find a way to present things in an accessible way. Some things work, some things… like camel, camel and emu were terrible to try and pitch, people just weren’t interested. But you move on.
Have you received considerable appreciation from the community for your efforts?
People like seeing a local business that has done good. I go to the homeless shelter often, because I have leftover food, like bread, bread doesn’t stay fresh. These days I’m donating a lot of food there, you know, they love it. I give food, and that always makes me feel good, because I hate waste. It’s inevitable with my business. Waste, my own-caused waste, that’s one thing, but leftover food, I’m pleased when I can give it to someone.
The wild meats certainly puts your food truck aside from others, what else may make it special?
I have the coolest logo in the world. Without a doubt.
People think I’m Australian. I tell them I’m not, I’m English. I think because of my accent I’m a novelty. People love the fact that I left the corporate world, because everyone hates their jobs. My small cart is tiny. I don’t know if you saw any pictures but, so people like it because it’s cute, let me show you, that’s the first one, the lights are eye-catching on its own. My newer, bigger one, is more generic, see that’s my newer one, it’s just more of a box, but still with a cool logo. I think you get people who love the pun, like all my burgers have funny names, like “Nightmare on Elk Street” for the elk burger, “Once you go Yak, you never go back” for the yak burger. I put a sense of humor in it. People love “The Dark Side of the Moo”, the name, yeah, people like that, funny makes people smile. My tip box is “Cow tipping.” People like it. I hadn’t realized I’m creative, but I like to be creative with everything I do. The accent, the logo, the creative name and the menu.
Interviewed by Joanna Felsenstein
Edited by Joanna Felsenstein
Hoboken, New Jersey
Recorded April 22, 2015