Comfort Food 154, his truck, is named for the house number of the southwest side Cedar Rapids home he grew up in. Combined that evokes the sense of nostalgia he’s aiming for.
“I’ve had the compliment from people that my food tastes just like their grandma’s. Compliments like that are awesome,” he said.
Cooking professionally wasn’t always on the agenda. Shay ran a printing press for 35 years before being laid off.
“You go through the emotional highs and lows. Then my wife asked, ‘What would you like to do if you could do it?’ I said, ‘Well, I like to cook,’” he said.
He enjoyed cooking for his family and friends and thought, “If I can cook for 10 or 12 people, why can’t I double or triple those recipes?”
A longtime friend, Phat Daddy’s owner Mike Curry, was selling his food truck, so Shay bought the truck and started the process of becoming a small-business owner. He took ServSafe classes through Iowa State University Extension, and pursued the licenses he needed to operate a food truck in Cedar Rapids
Another friend, Oupekha Baccam, who owns the Street Food Fighter food truck, acted as a mentor, walking him through the process.
Once he got rolling last fall, Shay set up shop at Hiawatha farmers markets and started calling local businesses, asking if he could serve lunch for them.
With plans to serve at Cedar Rapids Downtown Farmers’ Markets and Food Truck Fridays at Greene Square, his schedule is now almost fully booked.
He credits his wife, Crystal, along with his father and sister, with helping make the venture a success. “My whole family and wife’s family have been very supportive,” he said. “Crystal — she’s the reason I do this. I couldn’t do it alone.”
To balance out the seasonal nature of food truck work, he took a job as a bus driver for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. In April, he switched from full time with the school district to just afternoons, four days a week, so he could focus more on the food truck.
In the food truck, he’s found his passion.
“The fact of the matter is, I love cooking,” he said.
He enjoys the process of making noodles from scratch, of slow roasting meat, of mixing up a batch of cheesy sauce for mac and cheese.
His menu features dishes like beef and noodles, chicken potpie and cabbage rolls.
The cabbage rolls are a classic Czech dish he remembers his mom making, though he has his own spin — smoked meatloaf stuffed in steamed cabbage.
He learned to cook through trial and error, he said, largely by watching the Food Network and reading recipes online and experimenting and taste testing his own recipes until he gets them just right.
“I love to eat. One of my sayings is, ‘I’m not afraid of the fork,’” he said.
In the end, he said, though the layoff was painful at the time, it turned out for the best.
“I’m very blessed for all that’s happened,” he said. “My wife instills in me that things happen for a reason. At the time, you might not see the reason, but eventually you will.”
If You Go
• What: Comfort Food 154 Truck
• When and watch Facebook for updates, but look for the truck at Downtown Cedar Rapids Farmers’ Markets and Hiawatha Farmers’ Markets this summer.
• Details: (319) 551-3852, comfortfood154.com
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