“How great would it be if we could own a spot with our own friends and just do what we’re good at—making food?”
For Erik Thompson, 28, the answer to his seemingly hypothetical question began to materialize after responding to a Craigslist posting his mom found advertising for participation in Food Network’s season four of The Great Food Truck Race.
The show is based on the competition among eight teams comprising three people each who operate their own unique food trucks and sell their dishes to customers. Episodes take place in different parts of the United States, and one team is eliminated per episode. This season premiered on Aug. 18, and the first challenge occurred in Beverly Hills then San Francisco in the same episode.
Thompson, joined by his East Torresdale childhood friends Joseph Toner, 27, and Chris Turchi, 28, immediately agreed to pursue the competition once hearing back from Food Network (even before telling the others he inquired). In the first episode, Thompson said he was recently in a serious car accident, rendering severe nerve damage and several herniated disks in his back; consequently, this prevents him from continuing his career as an electrician. Turchi is a union carpenter who was laid off. The guys had no reservations and set off to debunk any preconceived notions the rest of the country held about the Philly cheesesteak and Philadelphia in general.
Although the guys’ current professional backgrounds are unrelated to food service — Toner works as a polysomnographer — their culinary experiences are tied to their upbringings and adolescence.
“We grew up eating well,” Thompson said. “Growing up Italian literally makes you a better food critic.”
“Some better than others,” Toner jokingly replied.
Toner also said that his first memory in cooking was with his grandmother making bushels of crabs for the whole family; he also worked at Aldo’s Pizza. Turchi and Thompson both worked at Al’s Corner Deli on Torresdale Avenue, and Turchi has worked as a line cook at Chickie’s & Pete’s Crab House and Sports Bar.
“We don’t have recipes,” Toner said. “[But] we have ideas.”
In fact, their on-the-fly ingenuity works to their advantage. The guys pride themselves on making their “Sambonis,” which are simply defined as “the best sandwiches” for not only taste but for mobility; they are hollowed and stuffed with savory ingredients rather than split in half and packed. Competing as “Philly’s Finest Sambonis” or for short, “Samboni boys”, also would have included Anthony Gargano but he could not compete on the show because of the three-people-per-team limit. The Samboni boys were the top team on the first episode, safe in the second episode and were in the bottom two teams on the third episode but were able to move forward in the competition.
The time constraints and budgets on the show are anything but simple. In fact, Toner said the guys were challenged immediately because of resource availability and lack of formal restaurant experience. For example, Thompson said the inability to find what are considered specialty products and ingredients like American cheese required quick innovation — intentionally or not: Toner and Turchi, instead, accidentally developed a concoction similar to Cheese Whiz on the spot. In addition, their shopping entailed going to both a butcher and a bakery rather than one stop like their teammates.
“We adapted,” said Turchi, who is the “meat and potatoes” and the “worker bee” of the team, according to Toner. “Bottom line, we always found a way somehow to come out with a strategy.”
That strategy is enthusiastically maintained out front of the truck by Thompson, who could “sell money to a bank” according to Toner—the “general” of the team.
“Our product has a name in itself,” Toner said. “No one dislikes a Philly cheesesteak.”
Moreover, excellence is on the forefront of their minds; they make their Sambonis only with the best products such as rib eye steak.
“Our [Samboni] stands out because we use quality product,” Turchi said.
The guys provided an educational experience for customers who never actually had an authentic Philadelphia cheesesteak. One customer thought a genuine cheesesteak was a roast beef sandwich, sans gravy, with Swiss cheese, according to Thompson.
This, according to the Samboni boys, is a travesty of the integrity and history of a good steak.
“We will put that on the menu when we decide to [actually] make roast beef sandwiches,” Thompson humorously said.
Their specialty sandwich speaks to a Philadelphia temperament as well.
“The cheesesteak represents making do with what you had … and blue-collar values,” Turchi said and referenced the origin of Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia.
Over time, it has become a metaphor for the cultural vibe of the city as well, according to the Samboni boys.
“The cheesesteak personifies Philadelphia because there are no bells and whistles,” Toner said. “If you make a bad cheesesteak, you get called out on it. [That honesty] personifies the Philadelphia way.”
“[On the show] we tried to stay as true to ourselves as we could,” Thompson said, “We tried to give people as much of an authentic [Philadelphia] experience as they could get … and make what we would want to eat with the ingredients we had … we did not cater to anyone.”
These honest, cultural encounters also included calling each customer by name and stopping for pictures and conversation with locals to successfully provide a true “Samboni experience” according to Toner. And of course, ordering by the correct vernacular, “wit or witout” is encouraged by Thompson and well received by patrons on the show.
The clientele, Thompson said, often did not quite understand their accents in addition to their pronunciation of “water” (“wooder”), which was misconstrued by a customer as a dessert.
The guys also appreciate the support from home. Turchi said that there is a strong sense of camaraderie in Philadelphia.
“We definitely got homesick,” Turchi said.
Toner is married and said it was an indescribable feeling to be away from his wife, but missing her gave him more motivation to want to succeed.
The guys took it all in and walked away with invaluable experience.
“I never would have traveled across the country let alone in a food truck had it not been for [the show],” Thompson said.
For those in Northeast Philadelphia who have ambitions like the Samboni boys, the guys encourage the pursuit.
“If you think something is your passion, go for it,” Thompson said.
Individuals can follow the Samboni boys on Twitter @SamboniBoys or their Facebook page, Philly’s Finest Sambonis, for updates and events.
The winning team of the show, to be revealed to viewers on the season finale, is allowed to keep and operate their food truck and receive a $50,000 cash prize, according to the official show press release. Episode four of The Great Food Truck Race airs this Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Food Network. ••