By By Monica Pryts | Allied News
GROVE CITY — Trucker Bob Hollabaugh has sampled barbecue from all over the country but said thinking about Grove City’s Mule Train Smokers makes his mouth water.
“He’s a heck of a nice guy. He ranks right up there with the best of them,” Hollabaugh of Grove City said of owner Norman Edwards’ cooking.
Hollabaugh, who was in Delaware on Thursday, said he couldn’t wait to get home this weekend to visit the “chuckwagon” barbecue food truck. The pulled pork, the top-seller, and rack of ribs are his favorite so far, but he wants to try everything on the menu.
“I think he’s going to do real well,” said Hollabaugh, who’s had barbecue in places like Texas, Georgia and Arkansas. “It’s just good barbecue. There’s no doubt about it.”
Mule Train Smokers set up shop Wednesday at 1207 W. Main St., an empty lot owned by Lee McCracken where a Christian book store once stood, Edwards said Thursday during a break in the lunch rush hour, the wood-smoke smell drifting through the air.
“I always prefer to do something different,” he said when asked why he decided to run a barbecue food truck. “I’m not in it to get rich and I’m not in it to get broke.”
His truck and smoking equipment first appeared in November in the parking lot of Katie’s Korner, Pine Township, and Edwards decided to move before the busy ice cream season started.
Edwards, a Bedford, Pa., native who lives in Grove City, has a 12-month lease on the spot, which is next to Grove City Beverage and across from Grove City Memorial Park.
It’s open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, rain or shine, but Edwards cautions customers.
“In the barbecue business, if you run out, you close,” he said; he sold more than 100 sandwiches before lunchtime Wednesday, a good indicator he already has regular customers.
He’s added a storage shed and portable toilet and plans to include some picnic tables for customers who don’t want their orders to go. If all goes well, he might set up something more permanent.
“In 12 months, we’re going to know,” he said of waiting to see how business goes.
Edwards, 49, first tried his hand at barbecue in 2005 after learning from relatives in Texas and watching the Food Network. He entered some competitions and won a few awards, deciding he’d like to run his own barbecue business someday.
“This is a retirement project,” joked Edwards, who’s married with two grown children.
He studied food service at a vocational school and spent 17 years working at hotels and resorts in places including Lake Chautauqua, N.Y., and Baltimore as an executive chef and food and beverage director.
Edwards then worked for the state prisons in Albion and Mercer as the food service manager, a job he liked despite the “violent environment” that comes with being surrounded by inmates.
“Prison is a society all its own,” he said as he checked on the pork, chicken and beef cooking on the smoker behind the truck.
He put time and money into having the smoker and truck outfitted to his liking and business has been getting steadier, even though Edwards is still trying to build working relationships with large-scale wholesalers.
“I’m a small fish,” he said, adding he gets most of his meat and poultry from Sam’s Club and other items from Aldi Foods.
Edwards uses several different kinds of wood and had a pile of maple logs behind the shed. Some of the food has a dry rub while others are saucy, and he uses only Cattlemen’s sauce.
The truck is his sole form of advertising but word-of-mouth and the smell seem to be working well. Rob Gui stopped at Mule Train Smokers on his lunch break Thursday after a co-worker recommended it.
“I heard the food was out of this world,” Gui said as he left with smoked chicken salad sandwiches and pulled pork, saying all you have to do is “follow the smoke.”
Other menu items include shredded beef brisket, sausage, kielbasa, macaroni and cheese, stewed tomatoes, BBQ butter beans and coleslaw. Sweet potato fries, tater tots and pizza rolls are fried.
Customers can also buy meat by the pound, cold or hot, and the weekend specials are whole chickens and rib slabs.
On occasion Edwards serves “Margie Dogs,” hot dogs covered in onions, chili, Italian hot peppers and provolone cheese, a dish created at Basilone’s bar in Farrell.
It’s his way of honoring owner William “Billy” Basilone Jr., who was murdered outside the bar New Year’s Eve.
Since Edwards runs everything out of the truck and the smoker is pulled on a trailer, he caters and sets up at parties, weddings, picnics and other events, offering an expanded menu.
He employs a few part-timers like Bill Surrena, who said he loves interacting with the customers and cooking up great food, like the “crazy good” smoked chicken salad sandwich.
“It’s amazing,” he said of how business has picked up.
Surrena also works as a meat-cutter at the Grove City Save-A-Lot, formerly Bi-Lo, where he held the same position for 35 years and met Edwards.
“I just wanted to try something different,” Surrena said as he handed a beef brisket sandwich to customer Mark Stoops.
He’s learned a lot about barbecue, like how smoking can all day, depending on what’s being cooked, and how to build a proper fire.
“We do our best to make it fresh every day and stay consistent,” said Edwards, who loves the soup and brisket.
Mule Train Smokers is at 1207 W. Main St., Grove City, and open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, call 724-372-1813, visit their Facebook page or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org