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You can't miss Phil Robinson's food truck.

Red like a fire engine, the small trailer sits in the corner of T's Stop N Shop gas station just off O Street, coaxing any passerby to come check it out. 

And by the time Phil Robinson props up the concession windows at 12 p.m. sharp, he's already got three customers waiting patiently to order fried catfish baskets and say hello. They'll keep coming until the windows shut at 5 p.m.

It's the people that make working two frying stations on a hot June afternoon in a room roughly the size of a garden shed all worth it to him.

"It's hot, but it's fun," he said. "You're working fast and putting smiles on peoples' faces."

After pulling catfish fillets out of a cooler and slicing them into thin strips, Robinson tosses them onto a sheet pan with his cornmeal breading and Cajun seasoning. He then drops them in one of the two fryers while he tosses and mixes batter onto a handful of pickles in a separate bowl. The breading gives the food a crispy texture and spicy kick, especially combined with Robinson's zesty sriracha tartar sauce.  

"The secret's in the seasonings," Robinson says, holding up a baggie of the mysterious light-orange mixture.

And it's because of the seasoning that the truck serves southern-fried catfish baskets as its main dish in the first place. Just over five years ago Robinson's sister served him catfish tossed in the same mixture that was destined to become his secret ingredient.

At that point, Robinson knew the food truck experience would be his side hustle, but the details were shady. His sister's method, however, opened his eyes.

"I'm not a real big fish eater, but the way this breading disguises that fishy taste, I realized my vision right there," Robinson said.

The 50-year-old cook from Joplin, Missouri, has spent the past five years managing the truck's operations while juggling work and family life. Up until then he had zero experience in the food industry, but knew he liked to cook.

"I love it," he said. "I have a kitchen setup in my garage and sometimes I'll spend time experimenting in there."

But while he loved cooking, he had spent most of his adult life selling cars or working in a car sales lot office. It was a steady paycheck that allowed him to support his wife and three children, but his passion was still centered around cooking. 

While running the gamut of jobs selling cars, Robinson eventually acquired the trailer from a friend who had previously used it to serve barbecue. He spent two months building his kitchen on wheels, installing fryers and a range hood and finding the right amount of space to navigate during a lunch rush.

With guidance and advice from the fellow food truck folks at Heoya -- generally thought to be Lincoln's first modern-day food truck -- Robinson dove head first into his new business and left his car sales career behind him.

Instead of working with spreadsheets, cubicles and office coffee, now Robinson works with fried fish, hush puppies and coleslaw. 

"I was confident with my product. I was confident in myself and my vision," he said. "I told my wife that I would be lucky if I never had to go back into the car industry. I jumped into this and I've never looked back."

And Robinson isn't going at it alone. He runs a crew of about two or three part-time employees depending on who's available. One of those crew members is Rontral Bluford, a line cook veteran at a handful of Lincoln eateries.

"I've been working in kitchens all my life," he said. "I do what I can to provide for my family, but I like this here. I hope we can really get this business going into something more."

In some ways, Robinson has already made it more than just about the food. He gets his food from local distributors and sets up shop at events and breweries and uses his Facebook page as an announcement board to get people to come out to their local businesses.

"My motto is Make Local Great Again," he said. "Without the small guys working their own businesses, we're all going to go to waste."

And he's got big plans for the future. While still keeping most of the details under wraps, Robinson is currently planning an expansion at T's Stop N Shop and a full storefront restaurant at 17th and Washington streets toward the end of the summer.   

Despite all this, the little red trailer will still be parked out on O Street on Sundays where Robinson got his start. Just like it always is.

"I feel like I had something here, and it took off," Robinson said.

16 Lincoln food trucks and mobile dining options

Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or eclopton@journalstar.com.

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City desk intern

2019 city desk intern at the Journal Star

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