One drizzly October morning last year, my girlfriend and I ventured to Hayes Valley to check out the much-talked about Proxy Project. And there in the lot near the Ritual Roasters kiosk, we saw it parked in its gleaming glory – a 1967 Ford ambulance painted a bright, cherry red with old-fashioned hand-drawn pictures of various cuts of meat curling around its tail end. Custom-made, blond wood shutters hung down over the windows. I stood on the back bumper to try and peer in. Curiosity piqued, I asked the nearby Ritual barista what exactly this beautiful piece of vehicle might be. “It’s the Avedano's Meat Wagon – it’s like a rolling butcher shop,” he said.
My mouth hung open. The venerable Avedano's Holly Park Market is a Bernal Hill butcher shop. Opened by three women, staffed by talented butchers, it provides fresh, quality cuts of meat and serves fine produce and even finer sandwiches. Rarely do I make the trek up to Bernal, but when I do, you’ll often find me at Avedano’s, lured in by its gooey, meaty sandwiches. But there I was in Hayes Valley, miles away from the butcher shop, standing in the shadow of Avedano’s Meat Wagon.
I wasn’t the only one staring; the truck draws the eye. And I wasn’t the only one with one question looming in my mind: What exactly is the Meat Wagon? I had to find out more. A few months later, I was able spend a day in the wagon with Avedano’s co-owner Melanie Eisemann.
At 11:30 a.m., Melanie rolls through the side gate of the Proxy Project in a low-slung truck that was passed down from her grandfather. She’s running almost a half hour late judging by the Meat Wagon’s posted opening time, but she strolls out of her truck without haste or hurry. At her feet, a tiny black Schipperke Pomeranian named Pele zips and zooms around. She calmly saunters across the dusty space between truck and Meat Wagon, arms heavy with a bag of prepared sandwiches fresh from the Holly Park Market mothership. Melanie’s a small woman, with short wavy hair and a decidedly friendly face peeking out from beneath sunglasses. She’s all warm smiles, casually declining my attempts to help her move a bag of fresh vegetables into the wagon.
“Step on up,” Melanie tells me. I grab the handles and pull myself onto the stainless steel stairs past Pele, who’s already lying curled up in a warm ray of sun.
A few years ago, Melanie became fascinated by the steadily growing food truck culture. Three years after Avedano’s Holly Park Market opened on Cortland Avenue, she was inspired to start one of her own. She wanted a different sort of food truck, though, one that sold prepared food on a limited basis (each day the truck offers a small selection of sandwiches) and that also provided butcher shop cuts of meat (including fish on Fridays) that people could take home and prepare. Short on cash – Melanie describes the original butcher shop as “not something you do to make a lot of money” – and unable to finance the key ingredient of a food truck (the truck itself) the idea stalled until one day a friend, a higher-up at Google who loved Avedano’s and shared Melanie’s passion for food trucks, called to tell her that he’d quite literally bought her a vehicle. “The first truck was an old milk truck. It was great, but was in need of so much repair it just wasn’t worth it,” Melanie tells me. “A few months later the same friend called back and was like, ‘So, I bought you another truck.’ And then the pressure was really on.”
At the start, Melanie faced resistance. The process of permitting for a food truck is nearly as long and costly as that of a brick-and-mortar space and her partners at Avedano's worried that the added cost and the extra commitment would affect the already existing business. “The Meat Wagon was always my dream,” she says. Even now, with Melanie as the sole truck worker, the Meat Wagon is currently only open four days a week (Thursday through Sunday), with Melanie spending the other three behind the counter or in the office at Holly Park. But she persisted and the Meat Wagon opened its doors in October 2011. Melanie has worked in the wagon four days a week ever since, rain or shine, spreading the good word of good meat and good produce.
As my eyes wander over the confines of the vehicle, I find the van spotlessly clean and sleekly lined with stainless steel. It manages to be both businesslike and homey at the same time. A chalkboard shaped like a curly-tailed pig clings to the back wall of the truck announcing the day's sandwiches, the produce artfully stacked in cozy crates that cantilever through the windows and over the side of the truck. No meat is butchered within the confines of the truck. Instead, Melanie stocks the truck with four small coolers filled with assorted cuts of various meats prepared at the Holly Park Market, as well as house-made lard butter (straight up lard mixed with a concoction of herbs used to add flavor to hamburgers and such), whole chickens (feet on), frozen bones (for stock), and the incredibly popular Avedano’s raw meat dog food mix. Customers can call Holly Park Market to order products in advance and pick them up at the Hayes Valley location.
The brightly painted vehicle becomes a mini mobile satellite for not only Avedano’s products but for the store’s ideals as well. “I was starting to find myself in this food bubble,” Melanie tells me as she readies the store, “and this truck is letting me meet the people who aren’t within that bubble.”
By the time Melanie arranges the veggies, adds the day’s sandwich choices on the board, and pulls open the wooden shades, it’s already 11:45. Melanie acknowledges her tardiness only by glancing at her watch and mumbling, “Wow, I got a really late start today.” We sit in the wagon, looking out while sipping coffee and chatting. Pele suns herself on the driver’s seat, as a loose gathering of customers snake their way through the courtyard, many stopping to ogle the wagon, some even snapping photos. The first customer approaches and Melanie leans forward out the window and cheerily says hello. The man orders dog food, which Melanie pulls from the freezer in a brown package and passes to him through the window.
“I swear, one-third of my business comes from people who are buying food for their dogs,” Melanie says, “which is great, but I wonder if people are buying the same quality of meat for themselves as they are for their animals.” Truth be told, the first four customers saunter up to the window for dog food, a frozen bone, or both.
For the most part, the Meat Wagon’s customers are regulars – the DJ with a soft spot for the fennel-laced meat sticks, or Melanie’s favorite cheese monger, or the EMTs who Melanie say “love the décor.” She knows all of their stories as well as she knows the finite details of each and every product she serves. Potential customers approach, confused about what the truck is. With a smile on her face, Melanie asks where they live and lays out the purpose and promise of her little four-wheeled meat truck. What she’s here to do is not only become a part of the Hayes Valley community but add to it. “It’s a matter of educating people not only about what we do, but about the neighborhood as well.”
I hear Melanie use the phrase “starting a conversation” a lot over the course of the day. She hopes the Meat Wagon will start the conversation about the importance of knowing where our meat comes from.
“I want to break down the whole food system,” Melanie tells me. “I’ve come to realize that we’ve all been having the same conversation in the green movement, and for whatever reason, meat has been excluded. They’ve been following the same goals, with no recognition because meat is such a politically charged word. I want to change that.”
As the day progresses, Melanie pulls out two red-vinyl stools and we set up shop in front of the truck. People we both know stop by to chat from time to time. Pele rockets around the area, snatching up scraps and garnering love from the gathering crowd. It’s a beautiful scene, and I forget for a moment that I’m writing a story – I’m just a part of this little community, and it’s a wonderful feeling.
Avedano’s Meat Wagon is located in the Proxy Project at Hayes and Octavia. It’s open 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, noon–5 p.m. on Sunday. Stop by, grab a meat stick, and say hello to Melanie.