keep on truckin

Carrying on a local college tradition has given New York retailer Albert Smith new menu items and a new generation of grateful customers.

In the 28 years Albert Smith has operated the Shortstop Deli (Ithaca, NY), he has never gotten a hug from a customer. Sure, his patrons appreciate that the coffee is fresh, that the store bakes its own bread and that its deli is open 24 hours, but he has never been physically embraced by one of his grateful customers. But once Smith took over the operation of a Cornell University tradition—the Hot Truck—he had to be prepared for more “hands-on” expressions of their gratitude.

The Hot Truck was started in 1960 by its founder Bob Petrillose, who grew up in the restaurant business in an Italian-American eatery, Johnny’s Big Red Grill, a landmark in the college town. At 29, Petrillose bought the truck to sell pizzas to students on the Cornell campus for late night snacks. (The truck typically parks on campus from 10 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. weekdays, 11 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. weekends.) When he saw that students were buying more slices than whole pies, which seemingly devoted his business to strictly re-heating product, he developed a pizza-based sub using french bread, baking it with sauce and cheese, and folding it over for a handheld treat. The french bread pizza sub was a huge hit with students and became the main staple on the truck’s menu, with recipes varying by customers’ requests for meats and toppings.

In 2000, at the age of 69, Petrillose was ready to retire from the Hot Truck business, but he wasn’t ready to let his loyal patrons go hungry. He had known Smith for years and asked him to take over the truck. Down the hill from Cornell, Smith and his wife Cindy run their single store, the Shortstop Deli, and had been trying to find a way to draw students off campus and down the hill. At one point he investigated introducing his own truck to the campus, but the university wouldn’t allow a new business to set up shop; the only way to get onto campus and use the power source available was to be grandfathered in. Smith was reluctant, but he couldn’t resist the opportunity, especially when his son was eager to get in on the deal.

“[Petrillose] had been on me for years to take over the truck,” says Smith. “It’s hard to staff it because it goes out so late at night, so I was hesitant to jump on board. But then my son came home from school and said it was something he thought he could do. We bought the truck in 2000, and have been taking care of it ever since. It’s become another facet of our family business.”

Smith’s existing c-store/deli has already seen a good deal of success. The store does $2 million a year in total sales, and $1 million of that is made in sandwiches and subs alone. But by taking over the rich tradition of the Hot Truck, Smith opened his doors to an even larger opportunity to attract customers. Hot Truck customers have come to expect their french bread pizza subs, so he didn’t want to disrupt business with a new menu. He sat down with Petrillose and learned the recipe for the signature sub—from the original recipe for meatballs to the homemade sauce. Once the recipe was his own, he began selling the subs in his stores in addition to carrying on the campus Hot Truck tradition.

“The Hot Truck really helped us grow our business,” says Smith. “The students like to stay pretty close to campus, but knowing they can get the Hot Truck subs in our store has really drawn them down the hill. Not only have we attracted students to our stores, but we’re selling the pizza subs in our store, too. We actually sell more of these subs in our store than we do at the Hot Truck. Out of the $1 million in deli business we do [each year], $150,000 is from the Hot Truck subs—that’s 15% of our business!”

The Hot Truck is a two-or three-person job. Smith’s son Michael is still heavily involved, and he was able to find loyal associates willing to brave the same late hours and harsh conditions. (“Winters in Ithaca at 10 p.m. can be really tough,” says Smith.) He sells hot subs, sandwiches, chips, soda, bottled water and cookies baked in his store’s deli, but 98% of the sales from the Hot Truck come from the pizza-based subs. Smith is willing to budge on the menu if customers have a special request.

“A lot of the subs were named in the ’60s, but we’re open to what the students want,” says Smith. “If they come up with a concoction they want to order, we let them name it and we’ll add it to the menu. If it takes off, there’s no reason it can’t become a regular item. The Hot Truck is there for the students, so why shouldn’t they have a say in its menu?”

The Hot Truck also caters events like fraternity parties, football games and alumni events—that’s where Smith meets some of his biggest fans.

“At the alumni events, they realize the truck is under new ownership and they ask about Bob [Petrillose],” he says. “It amazes me how big a deal the truck is to the alumni. They tell stories about memories they have waiting in line for a Hot Truck sub. Some of them met their wives there.

“One evening I attended a lacrosse banquet,” he continues. “I met an alumnus who played in the ’80s and I told him I owned the Shortstop Deli. Half an hour later I’m talking to this guy’s buddy and it came up that I operate the Hot Truck. After dinner, the first guy comes up and gives me a big hug and tells me, ‘It’s fantastic you’re keeping the Hot Truck going.’ It’s reactions like that that take you off guard, but it’s a huge tradition on this campus and I’m honored that we can carry it on.”

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