If I had a nickel for every person who told me they went from a career as a licensed damage appraiser in an auto body shop to cooking and serving food to tens of thousands of people a year, I’d have exactly a nickel. But while Teri Goulette’s journey from checking busted grilles to cooking grilled cheese as the owner of the Say Cheese! food trailer may be atypical, her story offers inspiration for anyone passionately pursuing a dream.
Which is what most of us do: dream of Teri’s grilled cheese, probably from a distance as we brave the often impossibly snaking line in front of her truck to get our hands on one or more of the half dozen or so sandwiches Teri’s truck offers. If you’ve been to food festivals and events like stART on the Street, you know what I mean. You may have thought while you wait, “What the hell am I doing waiting this long for grilled cheese?” And then you realize you drooled a little bit as you said that. That’s the hell why: It’s grilled cheese. I mean, who hates grilled cheese? Bad people. It’s one of life’s perfect foods – one that Teri does to perfection. And that obviously grew out of her passion for . . . Brussels sprouts?
“I wanted to do fried Brussels sprouts,” says Teri. “The truck was going to be called, ‘Sprouts.’ I was obsessed with the idea in 2012 when I started thinking about a truck. Then I was actually getting serious and looking at trucks and friends and family people kept asking me what else I was going to make. The idea was cute and for a handful of events I would have done well and had a real niche. But I could never make a living and survive off of Brussels sprouts.”
With Sprouts officially dead, Teri began searching for a new vehicle for her vehicle: “We’re Filipino, and my mom has a kick-ass fried rice recipe with a bacon base topped with scrambled eggs, green onions, bean sprouts, garlic, and onions. It’s incredible.” Still it wasn’t enough to serve the rice and the question became what else? Teriyaki chicken? Eggrolls? Teri found herself with a culinary conundrum.
“I had to ask am I passionate about all that? Is that what I want to do?” she remembers. “I had Brussels sprouts, which I was passionate about but couldn’t execute on. I had Filipino fried rice, which I could execute on but I’m not passionate about.”
While the food remained a question mark, the medium was not: Teri wanted that food truck more than ever. Her passion for cooking for and serving people was only growing. She was good at her job but it was not her dream. Eleven years before Say Cheese! she had moved to Shrewsbury from Chicopee to run her brother’s auto body shop. To get friends and family to make the trip east, she and her mom had to make it worth their drive. Food became the incentive: “Filipinos cook a lot,” Teri’s mom says. “We always have friends over. But Teri started cooking gourmet stuff.” Soon, people started asking to come and they started thinking about food as a business. “We thought about a little diner,” Teri says. “We work so well together cooking and making everyone happy. We thought it would be cute. I didn’t want to be in the body shop forever. Eventually I started thinking on weekends I could start a food truck. I was in the auto industry. My other brother is a used car dealer and a mechanic. I knew if I found the truck I could do it. I could paint it. We would have all the resources at our fingertips – totally doable. A diner would’ve been much harder.”
More than a decade and one kid later she finally has her dream, and it was her passion for feeding her family, specifically her son Jack, that led to the menu: “My son can eat soup in any kind of weather. At home I just have to constantly be making soup for this kid, but I needed to feed him more and that became Plain Jane grilled cheese. I got sick of that. Then one night, with the food truck still in the back of my head, I had a loaf of Italian bread, and my mom coming over for dinner. I love cheese like Gouda and blue cheese so I just made cute little grilled cheese sandwiches to go with our soup, and my mom loved it. She thought it was good and different. It soon became a thing. Each time I tried to top the grilled cheese I made before. It quickly became what the food truck should be.”
In 2015, Teri finally found the perfect truck – actually a trailer that was already its signature orange – and after weeks of tears learning to park it she was ready to roll that spring. Or so she thought. The funny thing about dreams? They can be a little messier to execute in reality.
“Our very first event was me, mom, and my friend at a food truck festival. We had no ticket system. My friend would just take the order and hand them to me. We had never even practiced. Make it stop! We made 187 sandwiches. We thought that was amazing – the most sandwiches that could be made. We topped it at our next event.” Over the course of two days they made 1250 sandwiches, and that’s when Teri knew she had it: “Our line went out from the truck wrapped around in the distance and came back to the trailer.”
These days Teri tries not to look at the line, especially at events where she is already at capacity and working as hard as possible with a crew of five to make those sandwiches happen – to the tune of 20,000 sandwiches a year. Don’t try and wave even if she does turn don’t expect any special attention – Teri’s rule is no one skips the queue. No one. Her mom is already on the truck – what you got?
Since those first days, Teri’s menu has not so much changed as evolved with staples like the Caprese (fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil & balsamic glaze), the Cheddar Monster (cheddar, muenster, & tomato), and Teri’s favorite The Wedge (bleu cheese crumbles, cheddar, bacon, & tomato) always available. There are often specials, but the newest permanent addition outsells them all: the Picklebac (cheddar, bacon, & dill pickles). No matter your choice, every sandwich comes on Tuscan Ciabatta from Jessica’s Brick Oven Bakery in North Andover: “I must have tried dozens of different breads. Then one day I was in my local farm stand in Shrewsbury and I saw the bread. I tried it and instantly I knew.”
What Teri knows these days is exactly where she will be pretty much a year in advance, especially during the warmer months with all the food truck festivals and events. In the winter, breweries keep her business going, and the list she has and will work with – Iron Duke, Medusa, Trillium, Cold Harbor, Honest Weight among them – is testament to the quality of what Teri does.
Yes, Teri wishes she could do more: “I think about how many events we have to turn down because we are booked solid. I never imagined people would be contacting me and that I wouldn’t have to solicit for work. In 2015, I was just looking for places to bring this thing. So the idea of a second trailer kicks around a lot. But I love my crew. We are having so much fun. I am at the right stress level even when it is crazy. I worry that going to two trucks will be the kiss of death.”
And really who would want their epigraph to be “she killed grilled cheese.” So we’ll have to suffer a little wait for Teri’s grilled cheesy goodness. Actually, the word passion comes from the Latin word for suffering. Teri has been willing to suffer for hers and clearly so are we.