As a schoolteacher for 22 years, Renee Rhoads was used to planning, multitasking, organizing and problem solving.

Now that she’s making mashed potatoes for a living, things haven’t changed much.

“It’s very similar, except I’m not getting any parent emails,” Rhoads said. “And it’s really nice to hand someone a plate of mashed potatoes with yummy food on it and say ‘Here, enjoy your meal’ and not ‘Hey, your kid is not doing his homework.’ ”

This is Rhoads’ first summer running her mashed potato business; she’s doing so out of her 1972 Shasta trailer, which she has affectionately named Spud. She left Yarmouth Elementary School at the end of the school year after teaching fourth grade there for nine years. Before that, she taught in New York City public schools for 13 years.

One of her first gigs with Spud was catering the retirement party for Betsy Lane, the former principal of Yarmouth Elementary School. Lane said there’s no doubt that Rhoads leaving the classroom is a big loss, “but you watch: She’ll turn it into something fabulous along the way, as far as teaching people something.”

Usually when a fresh food truck rolls into town, it’s a young chef or wannabe restaurateur behind the wheel. The leap from 46-year-old fourth-grade teacher to food truck operator seems more unusual. No demographic statistics are available for the food truck industry, according to Richard Myrick, editor-in-chief of Mobile Cuisine magazine, which tracks other industry trends and statistics. But he estimates that nearly 60 percent of food truck operators come from the food service industry.


Rhoads may not be a chef, but the path to her new career is not as unlikely as it sounds. Her grandmother taught her to cook, and when she was 13 she went to work as a bus girl in a local Greek restaurant. That began a long waitressing career at restaurants in Connecticut and Boston. “When I graduated from college, I said ‘I’m never doing this again,’ ” Rhoads said, laughing.


She never went back to restaurant work, but her love of food stayed with her. She’s tried to pass along that love to her students by baking with them, managing the Yarmouth school garden, and raising a few chickens on Yarmouth school grounds. Every year, wanting her students to be mindful of their blessings, she took them to the food drive run by a local church.

Rhoads, who lives in Falmouth, tries to follow a diet that is dairy- and gluten-free. At a concert at Thompson’s Point last summer, she noticed how busy the food trucks were – but everything they served “was on a bun or loaded with cheese.”

“That was when the seed was planted,” she said. “I was thinking it might be time to do something new. I was feeling a little burnt out. I’d never taught anywhere for nine years, and I needed a change.”

Almost everyone fantasizes about career change at some point, but usually it takes more of a push to transform the daydreaming into action. After all, career transitions like the one she envisioned can mean pay cuts and loss of health care. In Rhoads’ case, she says she never would have made the leap if her husband hadn’t been able to add her to his health plan. She’s definitely taking a “huge” pay cut, but said she doesn’t care, if it means leaving the “stress and pressure” of teaching behind.


“I am not a fancy person,” she said. “I drive old cars. As long as I can pay my bills, I’m happy.”

For Rhoads, the prod she needed to make this major transition came from an exercise class she took that was built around Roller Derby-style skating. She loved it so much she tried out for Maine Roller Derby and now skates under the name D. Tension. (Get it?) The women she skated with were from all walks of life, which she said taught her she could do anything – even wear sparkly spandex – and still be the same person, still be happy. Without that push, she said, she’d still be grading papers.

Renee Rhoads places a pinwheel on the back of her 1972 Shasta Compact camper, affectionately dubbed Spud, while setting up outside Austin Street Brewery in Portland.

“You’re with all these women who take risks,” she explained. “They’re willing to do anything. Roller Derby teaches you ‘Hey, you get knocked down, you just get back up.’ It was such a confidence builder.”

When Rhoads found Spud on Craigslist, a Roller Derby buddy offered her a barn to store it in over the winter. She worked on it on weekends, painting it and installing a four-bay sink. Rhoads estimates she spent $10,000 on the project over 10 months, including $3,500 for the trailer and $1,000 on the sink.

Meanwhile, she began talking about making a life change to friends and co-workers. Gabe Gordon, another Yarmouth fourth-grade teacher and a friend, says Rhoads is “a real go-getter” and “one of the most creative people I know.” He wasn’t surprised Rhoads was ready to try something new, “but I was surprised that she was going to do a food truck.”

“She’s an amazing educator,” Gordon said. “She’s the type of teacher that gets to know each individual kid and gets to know their strengths and really helps them excel in their classroom. … I would imagine she would take that same passion to the food truck business.”


Betsy Lane says she, too, knew Rhoads was ready to move on, but was “really floored” when she heard the teacher was setting aside her red pen for a chef’s knife. Rhoads has a “tremendous gift” for growing things and teaching kids how to cook, she said, “but the food truck idea just made me howl. Who else but Renee would come up with something like this?”

For advice, Rhoads turned to Jenna Friedman, co-owner of the CN Shawarma food truck and the new Bayside restaurant Baharat. Rhoads said she’s just sent Friedman “another ridiculous, gooey thank-you email” for their long meeting over a cup of coffee.

“I’m just so grateful to her because she gave me so much advice and information,” Rhoads said. “She gave me all of her contacts. She showed me what a catering contract looks like.”

Rhoads scoops mashed potatoes into a bowl amid the half-dozen crockpots she uses in her camper. She is developing new recipes, including chicken mole; cioppino; and potato pancakes with Maine-smoked fish, dill crème fraîche and capers.

Originally, Rhoads planned to serve only gluten-free and dairy-free food, but her 18-year-old son (she also has a 13-year-old) put the brakes on that, calling it a “horrible” idea. He was also the one who suggested she make mashed potatoes like she used to when they were boys: Swedish meatballs on a bed of mashed potatoes. She’d tell the boys, “Here’s your bird’s nest. You’d better eat it before the birds hatch.”

And so she began putting together a menu featuring thick, satisfying Maine mashed potatoes with toppings like shepherd’s pie, pulled pork BBQ and curried chicken.



At first, Rhoads peeled every potato by hand – she goes through at least 200 pounds in a week – but after she, her husband, and her sister-in-law spent 24 hours peeling potatoes for a local festival, Rhoads bought a $700 potato-peeling machine. “You don’t start a snow removal business with a freakin’ shovel,” she told her husband. “I’m buying the machine.”

Rhoads has a half-dozen crockpots in her trailer, and slow roasts meats in them the night before she parks in a park or at a local brewery.

One recent Monday, when Rhoads was scheduled to be at Austin Street Brewery at noon, she rose at 6 a.m. to peel potatoes and make a batch of her shepherd’s pie topping. Then she ran to the store to pick up some last-minute items.

“I’m usually in panic mode,” she said. “And every time I go out, I usually make some kind of mistake. I’m like a first-year teacher, and you just don’t know what you’re doing.”

It’s also been tough to figure out how much to make, although food truck veterans tell her that’s a common conundrum, no matter how much experience you have. Once, at Bunker Brewing, she sold out in two hours and missed hours’ worth of sales. Now she packs extra ingredients so she can make more batches if she needs to. Leftovers go to her family.

Rhoads arrived at Austin Street a little late, and hurried to set up. Wearing Bermuda shorts and a summery blue embroidered blouse, her hair held back with a wide hairband, she brought out her Mashed sign, a chalkboard menu listing the day’s selections – all priced at $9, except for the vegan and vegetarian versions, which are $7 – and a green-and-white pinwheel that attaches to the trailer. She heaved a small generator out of her car and got it running.


Rhoads set up a small metal table for napkins, forks, business cards, a bouquet of fresh flowers, a big bottle of hot sauce, and her potato kitsch – three ceramic potatoes she found at Goodwill, one for tips, one to hold business cards, and a larger one with a lid that she uses to sell Needhams (Maine’s potato-chocolate candy) on days that aren’t sweltering. Two potato-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers also made an appearance.

Pulled pork barbecue in a nest of mashed potatoes with slaw, pickles and cornbread from the Mashed food truck. Rhoads’ other toppings include dishes like shepherd’s pie and chicken curry.

Rhoads donned a yellow apron imprinted with a potato cartoon. She pulled her cash box out of the oven, and brought out two jars of garnishes from her garden – a bunch of lavender and some lemon balm. (She uses the eggs from her Easter Egger hens to make meatballs and cornbread.)

The first two customers approached the trailer just after 12:30 p.m. Mike Marzilli and Ben Corriveaux, co-workers from a nearby store, were first-timers.

“I’ve been following her on Instagram for a while,” Corriveaux said, “and always kind of wanted it, wanted it, wanted it.”

On this day, Rhoads didn’t worry about running out of food. She served plenty of customers, listening to music or a podcast whenever it was slow, and ended up working until 7 p.m, which made for a 13-hour day, compared with her former 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. school day. Still, she says she comes home from the food truck with energy to spare, “whereas when I’m teaching I could take a nap every afternoon. It’s so draining. It’s just so intense. You have to be on the entire time you’re at school – at least to do a good job you do.”

One difference, she says, is fewer distractions. No kids saying they can’t find their pencils. No e-mails from parents. No Yarmouth youngsters worried about getting into Harvard. “I want kids to be making potatoes, not worrying about where they’re going to college when they’re 9 years old,” she said. “It’s nuts.”

While she misses her students, Rhoads has no regrets. So far business is good. She’s hoping to break even by the end of summer, and is making plans to winterize the trailer. She is developing new recipes, including chicken mole; cioppino; and potato pancakes with Maine-smoked fish, dill crème fraîche and capers. A binder with all her recipes is covered in scribbles.

“This is me trying to make vegetarian sausage that’s gluten free,” she said, pointing to one particularly messy page.

Rhoads says she has no aspirations to open her own restaurant. “I just like to do fun things,” she said, “and I like to make people happy.”

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