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Cheesy does it

Local food truck’s simple sandwich puts it on the road to stardom

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By Jialu Chen
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2011

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Though it seemed like the rain would never stop on a recent Sunday at the SoWa Open Market, the orders kept on coming at Roxy’s Grilled Cheese food truck. “Pick-up rookie, single out. Pick-up muenster, special. Pick-up muenster, single out.’’

The cashier, Sydney Howland, 22, shouted the orders to Marc Melanson, Roxy’s chef and co-owner, and two other cooks who were standing behind her, busily frying, flipping, and cutting grilled cheese sandwiches. There was a guacamole and bacon “green muenster,’’ the tomato and cheddar “rookie,’’ and, the special of the day: brie, prosciutto, and caramelized mango.

Roxy’s has been getting a lot of buzz, both locally and nationally, since it opened in March. The Roxy truck has appeared on “Good Morning America’’ twice. The crew is also competing on the second season of “The Great Food Truck Race,’’ which premiered Sunday on the Food Network. It’s the first truck from Boston on the show, hosted by Tyler Florence, in which eight food trucks sell their wares across the country, while encountering “Speed Bump’’ obstacles and “Truck Stop’’ challenges, such as not using propane or creating a new dish that combines peaches and peanuts. In each episode, the truck with the lowest sales is eliminated, and at the end of the season the truck with the highest take wins $100,000.

When asked why grilled cheese seems to be experiencing a boom, James DiSabatino, 24, who came up with the idea of Roxy’s and is the other co-owner, says simply, “Why not grilled cheese? Isn’t it the best food ever?’’

It might be hard to argue. Grilled cheese has been popular since at least the 1930s, when an open-faced version served at Sunday supper was referred to as a “cheese dream.’’ Last year, 195 million servings of grilled cheese were ordered at US restaurants, according to NPD Group, a market research company. On a good day, Roxy’s sells upward of 400 sandwiches, sometimes in just a few hours, for about $7 each.

Melanson, 39, was in the prep kitchen in Jamaica Plain early in the morning before heading for the SoWa market. While roasting three large pans of sliced mangos for the daily special, he talked about how he wasn’t fazed by “The Great Food Truck Race.’’

“We’re all different food trucks, so how do you compare?’’

However, his competitive nature up against other food trucks (and one in particular) is fierce.

“We’re probably the best grilled cheese truck.’’ he says. “If I didn’t think that, I’d be home in bed right now.’’

That there is another grilled cheese truck in town, called Grilled Cheese Nation, speaks to the sandwich’s popularity and the increasing presence of food trucks in general in Boston. Less than a year ago, obtaining a food truck permit in Boston was a long and difficult process. But this summer, new legislation was passed that made the process easier.

According to City Councilor Mike Ross, the initiative was sparked during a chance meeting he had with Mayor Thomas M. Menino at SoWa.

“We were both impressed. The mayor and I both came away from that event wanting to pursue food trucks,’’ he said.

While Melanson is at the stove, DiSabatino and another employee load up the food truck with blocks of sliced cheese and coolers of homemade blueberry mint lemonade. (DiSabatino’s brother, Mike, is also involved with the truck and appears on the Food Network show, but is currently traveling in Europe with his rock band.)

DiSabatino got his start cleaning at the family-owned Swett’s Bakery, in Winthrop, which had been passed down from his grandfather to his father (though it’s since been sold). When he was 21, he wanted to open a restaurant but realized he couldn’t afford it. So he came up with the idea of a food truck as a cheaper road to achieving his dream. It took him a while to get the required permit, before Boston’s recently launched initiative. Meanwhile, he was studying marketing and entrepreneurship at Emerson College and bartending at the Tavern in the Square in Central Square.

That’s where DiSabatino met Melanson, who was also bartending. Melanson’s first exposure to the culinary arts began when he was working at Lord Jeffrey Inn in Amherst, where a master chef mentored him. He had held a number of other restaurant jobs since, all around the country. A personable guy, Melanson bartended as a way to interact with customers, which he didn’t get to do much in the back kitchen. Now, he’s responsible for all of Roxy’s culinary offerings.

“Everyone’s eating grilled cheese, and everybody’s had brie, prosciutto, and mango. But have they had it together?’’ said Melanson. “We’re taking a simple grilled cheese and making it pop.’’

Later, after the food truck has pulled into SoWa market, DiSabatino strolls around, bantering with the other vendors before the market opens. The pockets of his sweatpants overflow with markers, napkins, and a smartphone. He’s responsible for the marketing and branding of Roxy’s, for which he’s using a lot of social networking. At 9:05 he takes a picture of the daily special and attaches it to a tweet.

“We are rocking out @sowaopenmarket. Our Sunday special is brie, shaved prosciutto, and carmelizd mangos! Come check it til 4pm.’’

Roxy’s first customer is Lydia Resa, 41,visiting Boston from Washington, D.C. After devouring her rookie sandwich with pickles, she said, “It was fantastic.’’ Then, she took a picture of herself in front of the truck.

Roxy’s doesn’t just appeal to out-of-towners. Another vendor at SoWa, Lana Soussan, casually drops by the truck to request that Roxy’s serve grilled cheese at her wedding, saying that she’s looking for something out of the ordinary.

And according to DiSabatino, when he got a call from a casting director at Food Network only a month after Roxy’s had opened, she told him that she had Googled “Boston Food Trucks,’’ and Roxy’s came up on every hit. Was it DiSabatino’s Web-savvy marketing, Melanson’s grilled cheese creations, or simply word of mouth that put them there? He didn’t know, but he knew something was working.

DiSabatino’s social network marketing strategy did pay off with at least one customer. Jenn Szabo, 26, attending a wedding in Danvers, made a special trip with her mother, Janet, to SoWa market just for Roxy’s, which she had heard about through Facebook.

“Lunch from Roxy’s was at the top of my agenda, regardless of the weather,’’ she said. While waiting for her green muenster, and downing an order of truffle fries and blueberry mint lemonade, she confessed that the key ingredient at Roxy’s is sort of an obsession for her.

“Everything,’’ she said, “with cheese appeals to me.’’

Jialu Chen can be reached at jchen@globe.com.