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Let’s hear it for the mighty roach coach

by | Feb 9, 2023

Forget about tangy Korean short rib tacos, succulent Maine lobster rolls, and decadent softball-sized cupcakes. Before taking up residency in hip neighborhoods around the country, food trucks were just an easy way for hard-working folks to get a hot bite quickly; rolling 7- Elevens you could always count on for hot coffee and a fresh donut. Maybe, if you’re lucky enough, you’d find some scrambled eggs and a bit of sausage masquerading as a burrito.

These latter-day chuck wagons have gone by many names—lunch truck, catering wagon, mobile kitchen, burger van, snack shack—but perhaps the most ubiquitous, if least flattering, is the roach coach. Try not to read too much into it; just trust us that it’s a term of endearment.

The inside of a roach coach food truck.

Snack time. Photo by Bryan Joslin.

If you’ve ever worked around a car dealership, especially one located on a busy “dealer row,” you’ve no doubt witnessed the daily ritual. At about the same time each day, give or take, the wail of a truck horn in the parking lot will set into motion all manner of activity inside the building. A self-appointed sentry, usually a service tech or parts guy fortuitously positioned near the drop zone, will make the big announcement for all to hear: “Roach coach! The roach coach is here!”

Like ants at a picnic, dealership staff will abandon their posts and migrate to the parking lot. Service techs often lead the charge, accompanied by the parts department, porters and lot boys, then eventually sales folk and perhaps some office staff.

For the next 10-15 minutes, all business activity in the building seems to stop. Time is of the essence, for this traveling trafficker of caffeine and calories has his rounds to make. Other empty stomachs await him at the next dealer down the strip, his arrival anticipated to the minute.

A roach coach exterior.

Open for business—literally. Photo by Bryan Joslin.

The truck itself hasn’t changed in decades. Typically, an American full-size pickup is the platform of choice, almost universally in appliance white. No need to get fancy, after all. In place of a standard truck bed is a gleaming stainless steel box, a repeating diamond pattern customarily bead-rolled into its surface. Ostensibly there for structural integrity, the quilted steel also conjures culinary connections to that most iconic of comfort food joints, the classic New Jersey diner.

Within seconds of parking the truck, the driver will have the rear and both side compartments opened up for all to examine. Hot stuff is usually at the back, cold items on the side. Options will vary from truck to truck, but you can always count on hot coffee, cold soda, and glazed pastries at a minimum. Since most of these trucks do both breakfast and lunch duty, sandwiches (hot, cold, and occasionally one and the same), hot dogs, burritos, French fries, and other types of midday fare often live among the morning goods.

Locale can heavily impact the menu. Think cheese steaks in Philly, barbecue in Memphis, or tacos al pastor in Los Angeles. As a young service manager in the Chicago area, I gained an easy 10 pounds on hand-rolled pork tamales from an amazing nearby Mexican kitchen whose truck rolled up to my door every day. Or maybe it was their fresh rice pudding. Either way, they provided a more satisfying alternative to what the big fast food chains were serving up.

For all its negative connotations, the tried and true roach coach provides two critical diversions from a hard day’s work: the faultless satisfaction of simple comfort food, and a few precious minutes to mingle with coworkers while the world stands still. What’s not to like?

Of course, not everyone is a fan. Hell, it’s probably a love/hate relationship at best, even for those who partake in the daily ritual. What do you think? Is the roach coach your favorite daily diversion, or does your stomach turn at the sound of its horn?

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