Five years ago, Jeff Tyler was working as a general contractor with 35 employees when he was blind-sided by the economic downturn. Years of forthcoming contracts dried up, and he was forced to sell his Hummer. Tyler spent the next two years working for other people, including a stint selling MonaVie juice, trying to figure out how to be his own boss again.
Then late one night, as he was Googling small businesses, an idea struck. "I woke my wife up early the next morning," Tyler tells me recently, "and told her we were going into the hot dog business."
If her skepticism was understandable—"She thought I was nuts!"—it was also, it turns out, unfounded. "I parked my cart for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Tyler says, "and didn't come home until I sold enough hot dogs to provide for my family." Within three months, he'd acquired a second hot dog cart, and started Palooza Catering, a mobile catering company that now serves everything from paella to barbecue.
Turns out, the leap from Chicago-style hot dog to Chinese-inspired pork bun is relatively small. Tyler's latest wheeled endeavor is the Bun Slinger, a converted taco truck that owes its name to the creative mind of his nine-year-old daughter, Sydney.
Together with Sean Soberg, an out-of-work carpenter he found through his hairdresser, Tyler serves up traditional Chinese bao buns ($3.50 a pop) filled with all manner of locally sourced meat, slaw and aioli. The menu offers a handful of choices: chicken with corn and jalapenos, steak with daikon, pork belly with mustard seed and onion. The requisite tofu option is so popular it sometimes sells out.
A word to the hungry: one bun will whet your appetite; you'll need two, even three, to get full. For a well-rounded sampling, the Dictator ($15) gives you a choice of three buns served with homemade kimchi and a generous side of garlic or liberally spiced "togarashi" fries.
For Tyler, taste trumps authenticity. Blending accents of Chinese, Korean and Japanese ("togarashi" is Japanese for chili pepper), the loquacious self-taught chef is more inclined to cook with Coca-Cola (his pork belly braise) than, say, fish oil. His formal training is limited to a couple of classes at the SRJC, which he credits for inspiring him to think outside the (hot dog) bun.
But despite his creative culinary chops—he's served Pinot, Zinfandel and Chardonnay-infused hot dog flights to great acclaim—Tyler has never worked in a restaurant, nor does he desire to open one.
"I'm too much of a free spirit," says Tyler, who works when and where (permits withstanding) he wants to. Trafficking in both wine-country posh and business-park casual, the Bun Slinger regularly parks at Sonic.net, the Petaluma Farmer's Market, Ragle Ranch Park, O'Reilly Media and an impressive fleet of local wineries.
Tyler also enjoys the camaraderie of the mobile-food biz. He shares plenty of pavement, as well as a commercial kitchen, with Dave Musgrave of Fish On! Chips and Gabe Nahas of Awful Falafel. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the ticket rail finally empty after the Sonic lunch rush, Tyler and Dave bandied between their food trucks, the music cranked loud.
These days, Tyler is glad to have swapped his Hummer and "stupid jacked-up trucks" for the big yellow Bun Slinger. "This truck catches more looks than a Ferrari," he tells me with a grin. "I'm definitely happier now, driving this thing around."