LOCKPORT, Ill. — Truckers may be some of the world’s best connoisseurs of food.
Many of them eat three meals a day on the road at a variety of places with a variety of menus.
Some even develop an affection for one particular dish.
For Peter Vanda, who’s been a trucker for 30 years, that dish was barbeque.
Eventually, it was barbeque that took him off the road and into the restaurant business.
Before he quit trucking, however, he honed his cooking skills while on the road.
During his over-the-road days, he ran up and down U.S. Highway 59 in east Texas.
He’d stop at local barbeque places and go to the back door where the meat was being cooked on smokers.
“I learned how to do brisket in Nacogdoches, Texas,” he recalled recently. “There was this one barbeque location there where I always parked my truck overnight when I was in the area. One day, this guy came out and woke me up and said ‘what are you doing.’ I said sleeping. Well, he asked me if I wanted to come in for coffee. I did and we struck up a pretty good friendship and he taught me how to cook brisket.”
When he would drive in the eastern U.S. Vanda would look for barbeque places, head to the back door and look for the smoker.
Usually, he’d talk his way into the restaurant where the cooks would teach him about the ins and outs of cooking barbeque.
“I have menus out the wazoo,” he said.
On his own, he try out what he’d learned.
“I just kept doing it wrong until I got it right,” he said.
He even bought a small cooker and did cookouts for parties.
“Of course, I could only do cookouts on the weekend,” he said in an interview with The Trucker.
But the barbeque bug had really bit him good, and in 2005 he decided it was time to come off the road and go into the barbeque business for himself.
He’d had his eye on a non-so-profitable restaurant location in Lockport for a few years and he kept trying to get the owner to sell.
“I kept browbeating this guy down the street about a restaurant that he had that he couldn’t make it in,” Vanda said. “I didn’t have any money, so I said ‘give me the restaurant and give me a couple of months to come up with the rent.’ This went on for three years. Finally, he said OK. He gave me one month free rent, one month to come up with the security deposit. I had $350 in my checking account and a friend gave me $3,000 for the first smoker, which was too small then and way too small now.”
Today, he has an enormous, hog-shaped smoker that he pulls behind a truck for outdoor events
He smokes his meat inside during the winter.
He calls his establishment Oooga Booga, loosely taken from a term used around NASCAR races meaning to get going really fast, Vanda said.
His place is not really much to look at, Vanda says, but he ensures his customers a quality meal.
“If you don’t have the best, you might as well quit. It’s a confidence, confidence, confidence thing,” Vanda told a reporter for a local Illinois newspaper recently. “You’ve got to have a love affair with it.”
Right now, business is not too good.
Vanda says his location, which is not on a major thoroughfare, is a big drawback.
He doesn’t have any money for paid print or broadcast advertising, so Vanda said he offers a free cookout here and there and passes out fliers.
One time, a man who owns a big hamburger chain came in.
“He flipped over the food and brought some folks back in to eat here,” Vanda, who never heard from the man again.
Vanda also feeds guests as a mission in Joliet, Ill., and conducts food drives for a local pantry.
One day, he’d like to relocate to a place that’s more visible to passing motorists.
“My main goal is to one day be able to give away food without worrying about the cost,” Vanda said.
Lyndon Finney of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.