On a particularly discouraging day in early May 2016, one thought dominated Melissa McMillan’s mind as she drove south down Interstate 5: “I cannot be defeated.”
She had just endured another frustrating round of negotiations in Portland, where she hoped to open her second Sammich restaurant only three years after her first in Ashland debuted to rave reviews and quickly gained a loyal customer base.
McMillan expected more smooth sailing in the Rose City, but while searching for a location she was turned off by the “new guy” prices she encountered, something she took as a slap in the face considering she wasn’t. Just as the situation was starting to feel hopeless, McMillan pulled off the freeway and into Roseburg.
“I saw they had trailers for sale,” she said. “So I was like, screw it, I’ll go see if I can buy a food truck and then I’ll show Portland what’s up.”
Sixteen months later, the woman whose wisecracking, braggadocio style earned her a large fan base in Ashland — both in her restaurant and on the Little League baseball diamond at Hunter Park — has indeed shown Portland what’s up. And it turns out, what’s up is that everybody in Portland who underestimated McMillan’s sammich-making prowess probably is kicking themselves today, or feasting on one of her Reubens, or both, because the food truck she envisioned during that stubborn whim near exit 124 became a smashing success almost immediately, paving the way for the brick and mortar Sammich sequel she always wanted.
Sammich Portland will open in November inside the forthcoming Scout Brewing taproom at 5029 SE Division St. The restaurant will be about 1,200 square feet with 30 seats inside and 65 outside, and will include most of the original Sammich’s big-hitters, including Da Burg, the Timbo and the Chicago Italian Beef.
“(Scout Brewing) is going to have 13 taps and we’re going to have the food,” said McMillan, a Chicago native who moved to Ashland about 10 years ago.
For McMillan, the move to a brick and mortar was the logical next step after the success of her food truck, though even Sammich’s most dedicated fans may have had their doubts had they witnessed the truck’s ramshackle, rickety beginnings.
Down in the dumps while driving back to Ashland, McMillan called a friend to ask where one might find trailers for sale in Roseburg. The resulting search only uncovered more bad news: everything was out of her price range. So McMillan decided to drive around town and see what she could see. Two hours later, she passed a house that had two old Chevy step vans and a “beautiful” silver truck.
She approached the house cautiously, recognizing her situation’s uncanny resemblance to the first act in every horror film ever made.
“And I’m like, 'dude, I’m going to get out and ask him if I can buy one of those?'” McMillan recalled. “They didn’t say ‘For sale” or anything. I texted my friend Summer, ‘I’m going to knock on a stranger’s door, this is my location, if you don’t hear from me in 30 minutes call somebody, I’m dead.’”
A 72-year old man answered the door and his first words did little to alleviate McMillan’s fears. He introduced himself as “Leonard-H2-oh-man.”
McMillan said, "OK."
The man said, “Know what that means? Leonard Waterman.”
What Waterman lacked in etiquette he more than made up for in salesmanship, however, because shortly after explaining that the nice truck, the one McMillan wanted, wasn’t for sale, he hawked her a 1974 step van, which she labeled a rust bucket (pictures on McMillan’s Instagram account confirm the accuracy of that description), for $2,500.
When McMillan returned to Ashland with pictures, her Sammich staff thought she was crazy and told her so, but she persisted. A raging sports fan whose default wardrobe includes a ball cap worn backwards, McMillan may be as famous for her postgame Little League rants (she’s coached numerous Ashland Little League teams) as she is for her smoked brisket, and it was that skill-set she leaned on when it came time to convince the staff to hop on board the food truck bandwagon.
She said: “Guys, I’ve got a dream. This is going to beautiful. We’re the underdogs, this is our route, this is what we’ve got, this is what we can afford. We have to make it beautiful.”
Only one problem: By the time McMillan got her hands on the van, she had only 45 days to repurpose it into a food truck and get it to Portland. The time crunch was so severe, she was forced to do something she never thought she’d do — step down as coach of two baseball teams, an all-star team and a traveling team.
At least she tried to, three times actually. But she was thwarted each time by the players and their parents until finally they made McMillan an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“All the parents were like, we’ll help you build your food truck and you coach our kids,” she said, clearly still flabbergasted at the unexpected turn of events. “I’m not joking dude, the entire baseball community helped me build that food truck. It was the coolest thing ever. I was on a budget. The plumber, the painter, the lead on the project. … it was nuts, man. One day there were probably like 15 parents out there and 10 kids, and the kids were playing baseball and the parents were working on the truck. They wouldn’t even let me work on the truck. They’re like, ‘Dude, go play with our kids, that’s what they love to do.’”
She did, and thanks to the volunteer labor the van was completed just in time to chug back up Interstate 5 and into one of the most competitive food truck cities on the West Coast. She named it "Pastrami Zombie" and had a short, motivational message painted in the back (in mirror image, so she can read it in the rear-view mirror as she drives): “Try not to suck.”
The question on everyone’s mind before she shoved off for PDX, however, was whether or not McMillan would arrive there safely.
“When I drove this piece of junk down I white-knuckled it the whole way,” she said. “I didn’t get it checked out or anything, I’m going through the mountains like, ‘Oh my God, I think I’m going to die in this food truck.’”
Pastrami Zombie, which will continue to serve in Portland after Sammich Portland opens, proved to be a popular spot shortly after selling its first sandwich on June 17 that year, thanks in part to a favorable preview article in Eater and word of mouth. Four months later, Portland Monthly named Pastrami Zombie one of the five best new food carts in the city, dubbing it “Ashland’s greatest food gift to Portland.”
Now, McMillan, who spends most of her time in Portland now, is bracing for her next big expansion, one she hopes will be as successful as her previous two. And then? Another restaurant, perhaps. But for now, she’s too consumed with running a food truck and developing a new restaurant to look that far ahead.
When asked to name the secret to her food’s success, McMillan, like always, has a quick answer.
“We love our customers, we love what we do, we don’t take any shortcuts at all,” she said.
Then, the Chicago in McMillan comes out as she defends a policy she sees as crucial, if not always tactful. You may ask for minor modifications, dear customer, but the operative word is “minor.” As someone who’s been in the restaurant business since age 13, McMillan is quite comfortable asking for a little faith.
“Modifications are fine, but we’re not going to let you make a whole new sandwich,” she said. “Because guess what, you’re a really good writer, Matthew from DAREX is really good at making sharpening tools, Steve Sendar is really good at being a business coach. And we’re really good at making sandwiches. Trust us. Just try it.”
— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.