When a tiny cart the color of a bright yellow egg yolk arrived on the food scene in 2009, Portland thought it already had breakfast covered. They were wrong.
Soon people woke up to The Big Egg and its small but glorious menu of breakfast sandwiches. Lines formed at the Mississippi Marketplace cart pod, critics gushed, the Food Network descended. Through it all, owners Gail and Elizabeth Buchanan kept their eye on the oval, making delicious egg sandwiches (and a killer breakfast wrap) from the very best ingredients.
Grand Central is thrilled to count them as customers, and not only because of a weakness for their Portobello Sandwich. And don’t get us started on the Monte Cristo.
Q. How did you get into the food business?
Elizabeth: I kind of grew up with it. My mom loved to cook and was a fantastic cook. I loved food at a young age and worked at restaurants. I went off and did other things (like study art) but I ultimately always came back to food.
Gail: I kind of fell into food because I needed a job. Elizabeth and I met at a bar where I was in the kitchen and she was waiting tables. I was in the music scene… I played bass and guitar and was a guitar tech for a while for Steve Malkmus and the Jicks, we went on tour with Radiohead and did all kinds of crazy nutty stuff for a couple of years. It feels like a lifetime ago…
Q. What was the inspiration for the cart?
Gail: We both loved breakfast! We actually enjoy working in the morning. Our plan was to open up a café, but then 2008 happened, and everything went to hell in a hand basket, so this was what we could afford to do at the time.
Elizabeth: I was working at a restaurant (Alberta Street Oyster Bar) at the time… I had done fine dining, I’ve done nights, and I was like, ‘this is not my thing.’ It’s just a different lifestyle. I had my own business for a while, and so did Gail, so we thought, we can do this.
Q. What’s your favorite egg sandwich of all time?
Gail: I moved here from New Jersey, so Taylor ham,* egg and cheese with salt, pepper and ketchup is my holy grail. It’s nothing like we do here, but when I go back to visit family, it’s the first thing I crave.
*a salty, crispy, greasy pork product beloved in New Jersey and environs, also known as pork roll
Bread is probably one of the most important things in a sandwich, and I’m not just saying that because you’re Grand Central. We use your ciabatta hearth rolls. They’re substantial but they have the air pockets. We put melted butter on everything and we put it down on the flat top so it gets that nice crispy surface…..
Elizabeth: I have to agree with Gail – the bread is a huge component. It’s a big deal.
Q. What are high points of life as food cart owners?
Gail: Like anything, this is a grind but in a very different way than it is being a restaurant – there are so many other things that you have to deal with. In terms of highlights, it has to be just the fact that we work for ourselves, and that we created this stuff and there’s a line of people waiting when we open. That’s the coolest thing ever! That’s what you do it for… and just the fact that we see the same people over and over again, that’s the best thing.
Q. Why did you decide to work with Grand Central?
Gail: I’ve been eating Grand Central bread since I moved here in the ’90s. We’ve had every kind of bread in town from different companies, and you guys just nail it.
Elizabeth: And we’ve always had such good experience with them.
Q. The cart closes from mid-December to early February. What did you do on your break?
Elizabeth: Just recharge our batteries, really. The first year we worked straight through. That winter was pretty miserable – I think it dropped to 11 degrees that year. After that we made sure to budget some time off. The elements affect the equipment in the winter too, so we have to take that into account. And people don’t want really want to come out in the winter, and I don’t blame them.
Gail: We work 10 months straight, way too many hours a week. It’s hard on your body for sure, so we have to take care of ourselves.
Q. What do you like to do when you’re not here?
Gail: We have a bulldog (Fergus McFerguson), so we spend a lot of time with our little guy.
Elizabeth: A lot of gardening – that’s a pretty big passion of mine. If I wasn’t doing this, I think I might be doing that full time.