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By Preston Knightfirstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK - From the road, which is where it is meant to be, the stationary truck looks about as out of place as bony ribs would be on a sandwich.
Care to guess what unusual sandwich is one of the best sellers at the unusual truck?
Six years ago, Charlie Billow laid down $6,500 for a 14-foot-long 1988 Ford F250 that had 44,000 miles on it with clear intentions and no irony planned -- this was going to be his food truck.
The vehicle was no foreigner to feeding the hungry, as it was used by the previous owner to serve ice cream. But to do what Billow had in mind, it needed to be renovated to the point where if it were to one day drive down Main Street across from Shenandoah Memorial Hospital, it would look out of place upon first glance.
"I've got more than $25,000 in it now," he said. "It's still got only 44,000 miles on it. It's never been moved more than 10 miles since I bought it."
Charlie's, at 805 S. Main St., opened out of the truck on Sept. 5, and the service window, signs and canopy that all make something seem out of place have instead helped it find its place as a popular eating spot in the area, and Billow, 72, has high hopes to start franchising the business in the near future.
The truck sells a wide range of food, all made from scratch mainly from the thousands of recipes Billow has collected through the years, and offers free delivery. Its pulled-pork barbecue sandwich and the rib sandwich are two top sellers.
The latter was a stroke of luck. As they prepared racks of ribs, Charlie's employees found too much was falling off the bone, creating waste. Billow decided to put three ribs, bones included, on a bun to see what the reaction would be.
"We have to cut up racks of ribs to make rib sandwiches now," he said. "Now everybody in town knows about the rib sandwiches."
Shrimp, crab legs, white chicken chili, coleslaw, potato salad, bread pudding and peanut butter pie are other feature items on the menu. In addition to hot dogs, one can order a "Sloppy" dog, which is the meat of a Sloppy Joe on top of a hot dog.
Billow's cheesecake, a family recipe since 1932, is as sought after as anything. In the week leading to Christmas, a board inside the truck was plastered with orders from customers requesting a cheesecake in advance.
"That means Charlie doesn't sleep much this week," he said.
Originally from Pennsylvania and having worked in the food industry for 23 years, including as manager of a number of restaurants in Florida, Billow came to the Shenandoah Valley for his family's construction business about 10 years ago. He since bought the truck and has compiled equipment for it through the years, and after seeing the construction industry fall, he has finally been able to open his own business, which he said serves a need for barbecue in the area.
Upon opening, Billow was still attached to the food industry, working as chef at Joe's Steakhouse, which opened downtown in spring 2009.
"I went in to sell cheesecake and wound up as chef," he said.
Billow recruited Barbara Windle from the Ben Franklin restaurant to serve as his manager.
"I like to have 'people people' to work with customers," Billow said. "She's one of the best employees in the valley."
Windle, 54, said: "I just thought, I liked the job, the people. I saw an opportunity to better my situation. ... It's a different atmosphere."
Her nephew, Danny, 25, also joined the team. The tight quarters of the truck do not make it possible to have any additional employees there.
Yet the way Billow talks, there will be plenty of job opportunities as Charlie's possibly becomes a franchise. He said chambers of commerce from other towns are interested in having him open additional locations, whether it be in a truck or inside of a building. If it were inside, Billow said the concept would be the same -- people order their food and can go sit at picnic tables, offering the chance for strangers to eat with each other.
He envisions an indoor facility's women's bathroom requiring the need to open a Coke machine to enter, and a phone booth for the men's room, and having nachos and chips for people as they wait for their order so they stay occupied.
"You'll remember Charlie's when you leave," Billow said.
He said he would like to grow to about 10 locations, and plans to have a truck to take to fairs, craft shows and other places next year, serving a limited menu.
"There's so much potential," Billow said.
That goes for Charlie's first location, too. In the spring or summer, he plans to have a barbecue event with a bluegrass band, and wants to construct beach volleyball courts and form a league behind the truck. By next winter, Billow would like to have a gazebo on the property.
"We love our location," he said. "One of the biggest things, especially in bad weather, is free delivery. ... Free delivery is going to be a big thing for us."
Charlie's markets to people staying at hotels in Woodstock, realizing they may want something other than fast food. Even on-site, it will deliver. Windle said it's common for customers to pull up next to the truck and call in their order on their cell phone.
"Like back in the 50s, they had microphones," she said. "Now this is the 2000s, and you use your cell phone."
Most of the food is prepared in or around the truck, although a central kitchen is available to Billow if needed.
"We try to use very simplified recipes and let the food speak for itself," he said. "Most stuff we have, I think a 12-year-old could do it if you taught them."
Billow likes to add a twist to things, though. For the sauce with the pulled park sandwich, for example, he throws in cranberry sauce. It may seem out of place, but that's nothing new when you think about Charlie's.
"If you stand here and watch the cars go by," Danny Windle said, "everybody's head turns."
It's after the sauce is consumed that you realize it, and the truck, are right where they should be.
"Everybody come in and try us one time," Billow said, "because we know we'll get you back."