Marcos Grilled Cheese Stand is "Iowa City's Famous" food cart. One man declared that "You gatta celebrate life with a grilled cheese! Especially here, they're delicious!" But we never interact with the people making our food for more than 5 minutes. What goes into a night of grilled cheeses?
The Background: Marco's Grilled Cheese Cart
Founded by Pete Johnson and Mark Paterno, who were University of Iowa students, a year apart from each other, and roommates. They decided that there was something to the nightlife of Iowa City – despite all the grown ups with real responsibilities that surrounds the students here. They decided to open a stand that brought people back to their childhood: the grilled cheese.
The stand opened up in 2000 and is still a favorite here in Iowa City with the slogan “Iowa City Famous.” According to Mark Smith, a graduate of University of Iowa and an assistant manager of Marcos; homecoming weekend people get really excited that Marcos is still there serving. In 2001 Joseph French started working the cart, but now he manages Marcos Grilled Cheese cart, George’s Best Gyro cart, and the Marcos taxi service. Smith manages the carts directly, working Tuesday through Saturday while French does a lot of the office, finance and other work. French will still come around the carts to see how things are going and to get out of the office.
In the spring 2004, Johnson and Paterno were offered George’s Best Gyro cart after the owner was having some financial trouble and the tornado that spring had just about done him in. Soon after that, the partners started a taxi company, which helped many students get to and from downtown safely.
Smith says that the carts are up and running Tuesday – Saturday nights with set up starting at 9 PM in the pedestrian mall in between Brothers Bar & Grill and Martinis. Marcos faces the west side and George’s face the east side and are right across from each other. The carts come in on the hitch of pick-up trucks with coolers, food supplies and other tools for the night in the beds of the trucks. It takes two people to set the cart up. Thursday night, Smith and his co-worker, Nick, set up the Marcos cart while two female workers set up George’s cart. It takes about 30 minutes for everything to be put in place, to get the grill hot and have the food ready.
There are many loaves of bread; at least six were pulled off the back of the truck while there were more on the cart. The cheese comes in a mass amount – slabs of sliced cheese, each about a foot long. The guys also cut up tomatoes for the pico de gallo that customers may put in their quesadillas.
Marco’s offers a simple menu: the nostalgic grilled cheese, a double-decker grilled cheese (three slices of bread with cheese in between each) and quesadillas. Options include ham, tomatoes, hot sauce and sour cream and pico de gallo. Prices for Marcos range from $3.50 to 5.50. George’s offers gyros for $5 and that comes wrapped in a pita, stuffed with gyro meat, tomatoes and Tzatziki sauce – the traditional Greek sauce that comes with gyros.
On Fridays, Marco’s and George’s set up around 9 or 10 in the mornings and go until 2:45 AM the next morning. There is a slight lunch crowd, but the pace picks up when the “10 o’clock kiddy corral” comes out – that’s when everyone under 21 has to leave (most) bars downtown. People bunch up outside the bar entrances and stragglers wandering over to the carts. On game day Saturdays they set up around 7 AM and get a few people for breakfast on their way to tailgate. But the busy time starts around 11 when the tailgating scene slows down and the game starts. From there on Saturdays, it’s busy all day.
Because they’ve been in business long, the crew knows what to expect and never runs out of supplies. Since there are two people working at a time, and something does run out, then one person goes back to the garage for the supplies. But if it’s later in the night, they just deal without it. On Saturdays they usually have a “bar back,” which is someone who is back at the garage and can bring supplies when needed.
The Assistant Manager: Mark Smith
Smith ended up doing so well that French appointed him assistant manager, the one who works on the carts. Originally from a suburb of Chicago, Smith stayed in Iowa City to work at Marco’s after graduation in May of 2011. He says it pay enough for what he needs now, and it’s better than being unemployed at home looking for a job. Weekends are usually Saturday and Sunday, but not for the employees of Marco’s & George’s; the days off are Sunday and Monday and back to work again on Tuesday night.
Mark Smith is a recent University of Iowa graduate from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He started working at Marco’s when a friend of his, who also worked at Marco’s, mentioned they needed more staff. Mark started his sophomore year, giving up his weekends to answer questions like, “Why does my grilled cheese never taste this good?” “What’s the secret ingredient?” and “Can I get it for free?”
Everyone who works at the carts are all friends with one another, and like Smith that’s how many of them had started working at the carts. After the crew is done working, they pack up, bring the carts back to the garage and usually go out together after. They’re a close bunch, says Smith, and most of them have graduated and made this their job.
What’s one thing that the employees of the cart enjoy? Tips. Smith’s Thursday night co-worker, Nick, says there is never really a problem with people being rude or not having “proper etiquette.” But one thing they do really appreciate is the tip. Starting late September to late April it’s usually cold, wet and dark. “Sure we signed up for the job, but we don’t have to be out here serving the drunks,” says Nick.