Michelle Panciarello is only in her first year of owning and operating a rolling restaurant, but as the Mad Hatter of her Wonderland-inspired organic food truck, Eat Me, Drink Me, the Bay Shore resident is still no weekend warrior.
“I’ve met a lot of people in the industry who treat the business like a hobby,” Panciarello says of some colleagues in Long Island’s mobile eatery business, which has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years. “This is not a hobby for me; this is not my weekend gig. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” she adds, “I’m not looking to get rich; I’m not looking to have a fleet of trucks. I want one truck—I want this truck—and I want it to be the best as possible.”
The fledgling food trucker says she has been forced to stay on the road all winter long because of delays in both building and permitting her International Utilimaster van, affectionately referred to as Optimus by Panciarello and best friend Jessica Conti, the March Hare to her Mad Hatter.
“Thank God I have Jessica,” she says of her sole employee. “I need her—I mean, half the time I don’t know my own prices. Sometimes I want to kill her, but most of the time I’m thankful she’s there to keep it together because we go through a lot of crazy stuff with this truck. The first really cold day we got, the plumbing froze and exploded. After we mopped it up and cleaned everything, the truck stalled out, and just as I was about to lose it, she’s like, ‘Dude, breathe.’ Sometimes you just need to have someone there to say, ‘Dude, breathe.’”
Conti doesn’t just offer emotional support. Panciarello says her best friend is also responsible for keeping the Eat Me, Drink Me menu from falling too far down the rabbit hole. “I need Jessica to focus me because I’m off in the atmosphere,” the culinary creative says of copilot Conti. “Sometimes I have really bizarre ideas. One day it hit me that we were going to do pumpkin cheesecake grilled cheese and apple pie grilled cheese sandwiches in the fall, which became our two best sellers. Then one day after we got this beautiful new brioche, I was grilling off mascarpone cheese onto it with blueberry pie filling I’d made, and Jessica goes, ‘No, no dude, just no.’ If it weren’t for Jessica, I would have put it on the menu and been like, ‘It’s genius!’”
Panciarello says getting herself through the winter has been financially difficult but insists she’s still going full steam ahead surviving solely on customers buying up Eat Me, Drink Me’s grassfed beef burgers, hand-cut fries and other organic treats.
“Every single time somebody tells me they loved something I put out that window, I’m beyond happy,” she says. “One time this wasted guy stopped by the truck, pointed and said, ‘Your fries are effing awesome.’ If the wasted guy stops to tell you how awesome your food is before being carried out by his friends, you’re doing something right.”
Eat Me, Drink me can be found at the Suffolk County Farm and Education Center’s Baby Animal Day on May 3.