Waffles aren't just for breakfast.
At least that's the position taken by Thomas Reboullet, Long Reach High School senior, varsity ice hockey player and co-founder of Thomas Waffles, a food truck business he started with his father, pastry chef Thierry; and sister, Julie, an eighth-grader at Mayfield Woods Middle School.
The family sells waffles out of a truck parked in front of Kendall Hardware in Clarksville every Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Reboullet, 17, came up with the idea earlier this year, when he decided he wanted to start a project that could raise some money for college. He pitched the food truck plan to his dad, who was immediately on board.
Thomas Reboullet chose a food truck business model because it was something he hadn't seen much of in Howard County. While food trucks are exploding in popularity in cities like Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and New York, they are just starting to take hold in the suburbs. (See accompanying article.)
"There's really nothing like that in Howard County, so I wanted to do something unique," Reboullet said.
He cited lower costs and the flexibility to change locations as other benefits.
Once the family had their goal in mind, the next steps were to find a truck and a suitable location.
Thierry Reboullet found a new truck on the Internet, and he and a neighbor drove 16 hours one way to buy it, then drove it back home to Maryland. Reboullet and his son then outfitted the truck to fit their needs.
As for the location, while driving by Kendall Hardware one day, the family noticed a produce stand in the parking lot. They approached owner Steve Kendall to see if they might be able to sell their waffles out front, too.
Kendall agreed to let them use a spot in his parking lot, free of charge.
"He's just a local guy in business for the right reasons," he said of Thierry Reboullet. "It's a neat story, and his product is great."
Reboullet, a pastry chef with 30 years of experience, trained in France before moving to the United States to work for French bakery and restaurant La Madeleine. He is originally from Saint-Félicien, a town in the south of France, but has lived in this country for the past two decades.
Thomas Reboullet said his father's influence inspired him to be a chef himself.
"Ever since I was little, I've always watched him in the kitchen. That's what gave me the idea to do this," he said. "With all his skill sets, I knew we could be successful with food."
That's not to say there haven't been some hurdles along the way.
In the beginning, the waffle batter would sometimes overflow, oozing out the sides of the waffle iron.
"We had to tweak the recipe a bit" to get it right, Reboullet said.
But since opening May 27, the Reboullets seem to have gotten the hang of things. They're now used to handling the long lines that appear during the breakfast rush Saturday mornings.
Sweet and savory
On a recent clear November day, they served up waffle pops and breakfast sandwiches to a line of hungry people, chatting with customers as they cooked and took orders. Thierry Reboullet offered samples of the sweet liege waffle to a customer who had only tried the truck's other offerings.
The waffles the Reboullets serve are more Belgian-style than Eggo. The liege waffle, lightly blackened on the bottom by the iron, has pearl sugar crystals hiding on the inside that give it a slightly crunchy texture. It can be eaten plain or with a choice of toppings that include fresh raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, maple syrup and Nutella.
The Thomas waffle is also sweet, and comes with powdered sugar and the same topping options. Waffle pops are perched atop a stick and come covered with dark or white chocolate.
The truck has other savory offerings, as well, like the egg, bacon, sausage and cheese sandwich (or any combination of those ingredients), served on the Thomas waffle. In keeping with the Reboullets' French heritage, they round out the menu with a variety of quiches.
And the Reboullets have hopes of further expanding their food offerings. Thierry Reboullet said they are working with the county Health Department to get approval to serve chicken with their waffles, and he'd like to sell waffles topped with ice cream in the summer months.
One thing you won't ever see on the menu, though, are waffles topped with fried chicken, a Southern classic gaining popularity at some comfort-food joints. Reboullet said he wants to keep the menu on the healthy side, so he doesn't plan on doing any deep frying. Besides, "what we want to do is stay unique," he said.
Reboullet also says he wants to change the American conception that waffles are exclusively breakfast food. "[In Europe], we eat waffles all day," he said.
Next fall, Thomas Reboullet will leave the food truck behind to go off to college, hopefully to study food science at the University of Maine, his priority high school. After earning his degree, he hopes to study pastry in France like his father did. But he said he will help with the truck over breaks, and that his father and sister will continue to run it while he's gone.
"I think I'm going to miss him. I won't have anyone to annoy anymore," Julie joked.
In the meantime, the family's focused on growing their business. Thierry Reboullet said he's started to notice regular customers coming back every other week or so.
Thomas Reboullet said he will consider moving the truck to other locations, as well. "We'll take the truck anywhere else," he said. "We've been staying here because we need to build up customers."
'Wow is the word'
One regular is Jim Hopkins, a floor manager at Kendall Hardware. Hopkins said he has stopped by the truck every weekend since it opened. His usual order is the breakfast sandwich.
"The egg is what makes it," he said. "You take a bite out of that sandwich, the egg runs out of it — ooh baby!"
"It sure beats the heck out of going to McDonalds," he added.
Barry Fields and his children were newcomers to the Reboullets' waffle truck.
Fields ordered two plain liege waffles for Talia, 7; and Avi, 3, and took a taste for himself.
"Wow is the word," Fields said, before ordering another. "I neglected myself!" he explained.
Carol Horton, of Clarksville; and Craig Bilenki, of Baltimore, came back after having stopped at Thomas Waffles twice the Saturday before.
Bilenki had a waffle breakfast sandwich on the couple's way to the Howard County Fairgrounds for a craft show, and decided to get another on his way back home.
"It's unusual," Horton said of the waffle truck. "We've seen the produce stands before, but this is the first time I've seen a waffle stand."
"Everybody loves waffles," she added, "but they're kind of a pain to make at home."
"I want to come every week now," Bilenki said. "This is great."
Would he consider eating the waffles other than for breakfast?
Thomas Waffles is open on Saturdays, year-round. For more information, check their twitter account at twitter.com/thomaswaffles.