Be Your Own Boss: A Retrospective on Kurbside Kitchens

Nick Sylvester


High school summers I worked for my family’s mobile lunch truck business, side by side this old guy named Patrick Nialls. There were fourteen trucks at Kurbside Kitchen’s peak, one of them driven by my father, another, through Philly, by his younger brother Gary. I did shop maintenance mostly, rotating perishable stock in the walk-ins, sweeping out and down the warehouse, collapsing cardboard boxes, scrubbing bathrooms and unclogging toilets—the damage done to which I learned not to take personally. The position did not pay a living wage, which was why it was so often vacant. My grandfather Skip owned Kurbside and more/less administered from the office, except the mornings when employees didn’t show up and he was forced to fill in. This happened frequently, but he never complained, and so tacitly made it unacceptable for the rest of us too.

Kurbside was not a pre-meditated business, but a last-minute escape plan. Pop’s unprofitable Skipper’s restaurant went down quick in the early ‘80s, almost immediately after I was born, leaving my own father with shotgun shrapnel in his leg and my aunt Debbie’s gun-toting first husband arrested, and later deported to Iran. Pop blamed the location. Skipper’s was set way off and below a busy road in a depressed shopping center, and only cars moving north could access the entrance. The shopping center’s catch-all sign came too soon before the entrance. It lumped the shops together, and discredited them as one. My immediate family moved up this road soon after, and for the first few years, whenever we passed the old site of Skipper’s, my mother was likely to tell the restaurant’s stories. My father rarely brought up Skipper’s, nor did he tell me about the shooting. I learned about that from my aunt Debbie when I was much older––about her jilted Iranian husband who pronounced "motorcycle" motor-SEE-CLAY; about the gun he pointed at my grandfather’s head; about the last-second heroics of a man named Kevin who wrestled the gun from the man’s hands mid-shot. The buckshot got my father in the shin; Kevin married my dad’s sister Karen.

Behind the restaurant Pop kept the lunch truck. It was a two-door white Chevy pickup whose flatbed had been replaced with a tricked-out silver food service backend, pretty sizable, with retractable doors on both broadsides and one on the back too. When the doors were open, the truck looked winged, hence the slur "roach coach." It became the comedy centerpiece of all my early bullies, who had already tired of calling me "Dickless Nicholas" and "Nick The Prick" and "Sylvester The Molester," and were happy now moving onto copybook-sized drawings of my father standing outside his fantastical vehicle, jerking himself off into a steak sandwich.

Regardless, Philadelphia suburban sprawl was in its infancy, and my grandfather had smartly recognized the coach as a picks-and-shovels business opportunity. Construction workers would build houses in boondocks, and he would be the man who fed them. This wasn’t five-star fare, it was man’s food: no-nonsense street fare prepared tastily but not fancily. Pop wrote and perfected all the recipes. Meatball subs on soft Amoroso rolls, with fresh parmesan and meat that had soaked in a red tomato sauce, thick and sweet and salty. Egg salad served on wheat bread, not too heavy on mayo, kicked out with pepper. Cheesesteaks made Passayunk style, with bigger not smaller chips of sirloin so the meat kept its juices. He designed the menu to withstand the travel time, to taste fresh a day after assembly, no preservatives needed. There were chips too, and 16oz bottles of soda, Pepsi not Coke because of that "Coke doesn’t hire black drivers" fiasco, and soft pretzels. Pop ate the food himself, fed it to his kids and grandkids, snuck some to his dog Sam. He believed in his product. So did construction workers.

When the truck’s profits soon outpaced the restaurant’s, Pop chapter-11’d Skipper’s and reopened as Kurbside Kitchens in Ardsley, PA, about 10 miles north of Philadelphia. Sometimes I wonder whether the logo came first: a giant beveled K that had "urbside" and "itchens" stacked beside it, a cup of hot coffee perched atop the K’s 2PM line, a wink and a smile giving the vertical line its meek face. Two of my earliest memories took place here: hugging my great-grandfather one afternoon; on a different day, seeing what had to have been a six-inch long cockroach crawl out from underneath the meat slicer.

Kurbside quickly outgrew its space, or the dry cleaners next door became intolerant of grown men outside fisting over the last crate of milk, or probably both. So in the early ‘90s Pop moved Kurbside to an enormous warehouse off Wyandotte Road in Willow Grove. It was about five minutes from the Willow Grove Air Base and two minutes from the Pennsylvania Turnpike. My grade school was nearby too, so now I was expected to help out in the flesh. This was a significant development. Until then I had only helped keep the books, from home, doublechecking the drivers’ math to make sure they turned in enough money for the amount of product they sold. It was an all-cash business, and some people we employed—ex-cons with no references, others simply the kind who heartily reply to ads that read "BE YOUR OWN BOSS"—couldn’t resist the temptation. I was afraid to work around these people; I had a history of getting them fired.

What hurried things along was my father’s health. He had Crohn’s, a vicious inflammatory bowel disease of debatable etiology that causes the intestines to repair themselves needlessly with scar tissue. As the scar tissue builds up, it shrinks the intestinal diameter, and with time certain cross-sections of the organ are blocked. For understandable reasons—a family to support—and inscrutable ones—a father who scoffed at sickness, his own and others, who equated it with laziness or an unwillingness to work—dad suffered the problem a decade plus daily, seeking relief through a delicate mix of Imodium and ex-lax, and a ghastly tube stitched into his colon, through which the intestine could relieve itself of the noxious gases that built up at the impasses. When the tube fell out, it left him a sphincter-like purse of tissue that he called his spew hole.

My mother learned to deal with the smell emitted, but I couldn’t. It was so compressed, so pungent, opening up over a few minutes with powerful hints of deep-fried oils and aged cheeses––a barolo from the jejunal region. At 4am each morning he woke up and readied himself for work. By 2pm, when his truck would pull in, he handled administrative duties, sending trucks for to the repair shop, putting together the milk and meat orders for the week, handling unruly employees. I took over the maintenance position, and as my father grew sicker, stocked and washed his truck whenever he came back off the route and parked in the lot with the others. Disguising his spewer’s shirt stain, he would say "Hey, son" to me, then duck into the bathroom I had cleaned just minutes before.

I saw my first drug dealer here. I developed an unhealthy love for salisbury steak sandwiches drenched in runny barbeque sauce, with Tahitian Treat cherry soda the usual complement. Some days I had two of each, others I filled out with varieties of Herrs chips, Mike and Ikes, and Mrs. Field’s. I fought yellowjackets, and after one got me learned I wasn’t allergic to them. I saw a white man call a black man a nigger. Every Friday afternoon a morning employee named Murph picked up his cash—there were no paychecks—and once I got him to show me the tattoo my father explicitly told him not to show me. I said, "Murph, do you have some tattoo I’m not allowed to see?" He signaled to the car waiting for him, then he rolled down his bottom lip. Tattooed on the gumline of his lower jaw were two words: "FUCK YOU." I learned what "kike" meant, rather awkwardly, from a kike. Over time I had tasted Dr. Pepper, a Dr. Pepper imitator called Mr. Pibbs, and a Mr. Pibbs imitator called Dr. Wells.

There weren’t many women who drove the trucks or worked at Kurbside in any capacity—the only ones I knew were teachers or my friends’ moms—but among the Kurbside ladies were my first lesbian, my first alcoholic, my first recovering crack addict, my first ex-prostitute, my first woman with a moustache, my first woman whose outer labia fell out her too-short shorts, my first woman whose breath was so bad it was hurting business. at last my grandfather insisted she see a dentist. I saw grown men spray each other with hoses, and the same grown men fight over full-color poster inserts of Britney Spears in the [Philadelphia] Daily News. Always keep some cranberry juice on the service side, the drivers liked to tell me. Bosses on construction sites love cranberry juice, and you want to keep them happy, so you don’t want to run out. On the whole they were superstitious. I saw them fight over cranberry juice.

Patrick Nialls started working the summer before I went away for college. He had been hired to replace me. I don’t know the specifics of his interview, but remember the dodgy cleanup job he did his first day before I began training him. He was in his fifties, had slick graying hair, wore t-shirts tucked into his pants. Some woman in a dark Cadillac with the windows tinted, I forget who he said she was exactly, drove him in every morning because his license was suspended. Banterwise he spoke with the pleasant but jumbled celerity of someone who really wants people to like him. Patrick said "Got it!" with gusto after each task I demonstrated for his edification, and sometimes for no apparent reason, like when I pointed out where the trash bags were.

At first he didn’t get it. The first time he stocked my father’s truck on his own, he gave him four cases of Big Blue, an obscure and unpopular soda produced by local brand A-Treat—which is to say no Pepsi and no quality items either, your Mystics and Tradewinds and Snapples. It crippled the day’s gross and left my father pants down. Patrick lost hose battles with the drivers, who relished having a new and sensitive whipping boy, a role I unwittingly must have outgrown. A driver whose mouth was ravaged by herpes simplex sores would touch Patrick’s shoulders whenever he passed by, darting out his fingers like a jazz pianist playing syncopated rhythms, sending Patrick into schoolyard fits. Another driver would sneak behind him when his head was underneath some kind of ledge deep inside the lunch truck, then shrill "Pas-QUA-le!" into his ear. Patrick looked vaguely ethnic, was apparently the joke. He took everything in stride except this. "My name is PATRICK!" he’d snap. Later he would apologize for the outburst.

Patrick’s novelty wore off eventually, people began to respect him. There had never been a maintenance man so efficient, so eager to help out others and never cloying about it. He never complained. Pop wanted to hold onto him, and promptly upped his pay—from $150/week to $200—though I got the sense Patrick didn’t equate his bottom line with his dignity. The gossip was that he had shacked up with someone in the prep kitchen, this woman named Audrey who had two young children and no teeth. He got down the rhythms of the job just in time: One morning in August the Doylestown route driver didn’t show up, and Pop put me on the route until school started, thus ending my time with Patrick. The drivers didn’t make too much of my promotion; I wish they had.

From what I understand this is what happened after I left for school that September. Some Tuesday Patrick didn’t show up, hadn’t called, didn’t pick up the phone. My grandfather planned on asking Audrey what had happened but she didn’t come in that afternoon either. The next morning a man showed my grandfather an FBI badge and requested information on the whereabouts of Pasquale Nigro, a/k/a Patrick Nialls. Nigro was wanted on 21 counts of sexual abuse in California; he had molested his two juvenile stepdaughters over the course of eight years. The trial had come and he had fled, and now he fled again. Time passed, and at some point America’s Most Wanted ran a bit on Nigro, either on the show proper or just the Web site, I’m not entirely sure. But somebody saw it, and recognized Nigro in St. Petersburg, Florida, near Tampa Bay. He was working in the kitchen at Tangelo’s Grille, and living in a local hotel under the alias "Tony Rico." The St. Petersberg Times reports, midway down this police blotter, that on February 14, 2001 detectives approached Mr. Rico at the hotel and arrested him without incident. Back home we were shocked. I don’t think any of us knew he could cook.