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Front Page - Friday, April 24, 2020

River City Roundup: Great sandwiches from Rolling J’s are a tap or two away




“Hangry?” asked the mobile website for Rolling J’s Mobile Bistro & Sandwich Shop from the screen of my iPhone. I assumed the question was rhetorical. Why else would I be there?

“There” was along the curb outside Rolling J’s on Riverfront Parkway on a Tuesday afternoon. I had visited the sandwich shop before, but with Chattanooga still under a shelter-in-place order, I was on the outside looking in instead of inside looking at the hand-scribbled menu on the wall behind the cash register.

Eager to set things in motion inside Rolling J’s, I tapped “Order now” and began scrolling down the menu, past the Pizza Grilled Cheese, the Ch’talian, the Mile High Club and the BLT to the object of my quest: The Turkey Bacon Avocado.

“Tap.”

Below that, the dessert menu showed a freshly baked slab of gooey Rice Krispy treats. “Tap.” (If you’re watching your weight, never online order on an empty stomach.)

After tapping on a bag of kettle chips and a soda, I hit “Checkout,” paid for my order and settled in for what was going to be a long wait regardless of how quickly they delivered my food.

For fans of the food truck scene in Chattanooga, Rolling J’s needs no introduction. For others, a short primer might be in order.

Run by chef (in every sense of the word) Jacob D’Angelo, Rolling J’s is a purveyor of the kind of sandwiches and other comfort food creations that inspire first-bite superlatives. “Oh my God, these are amazing,” I remember saying after taking a bite of his barbecue pork fries at the Chattanooga Market a couple summers ago.

After five years of serving superb (another superlative!) Southern cuisine out of his mobile bistro, D’Angelo opened a brick-and-mortar location on Riverfront Parkway in 2019. Occupying a corner of the Exchange at Cameron Harbor, a condominium development located in downtown Chattanooga, D’Angelo thought he had crafted the perfect recipe for success.

Surrounded by not just the Exchange but other residential developments, D’Angelo saw Rolling J’s serving as a neighborhood sandwich shop, with local residents stopping in for a pound of deli meat and some bread on their way to a picnic along the Riverwalk or grabbing one of his incredible (there’s another one!) gourmet sandwiches for a quick lunch.

It was working, too, D’Angelo told me during a phone chat last week.

“There was a U-Haul outside every other day,” he said. “And we were building clientele. New people were checking us out and we were seeing a lot of return customers.”

Then COVID-19 forced D’Angelo to not only close his dining area but also park his truck. As the shelter-in-place order stretched from the end of March to the end of April, clients began canceling weddings and corporate events, impacting his revenue stream as far as the end of May.

“All the food trucks were looking forward to a big year,” he said. “We’re building a food truck park on Main Street, but this has slowed us down.”

D’Angelo is as much an entrepreneur as he is a chef, though, and he’s accustomed to finding solutions when he hits a bump in the road.

When the engine of his mobile bistro exploded in 2017 in the middle of his busy season, D’Angelo obtained a line of credit with Kabbage, an Atlanta company that provides working capital to small businesses, and purchased a new trailer. Two years later, he leveraged this same line of credit to open his sandwich shop.

So, D’Angelo rolled up his sleeves and did two things he says he should have done long before the shelter-in-place order shuttered local restaurants:

March 18, he launched online ordering.

April 10, he began selling family meals online, including fajitas, spaghetti and meatballs, and Philly kits. (D’Angelo is asking for 24 hours’ notice for the family meals.)

These things are helping as much as anything could at this time, D’Angelo says. Online orders are picking up but aren’t coming close to matching the foot traffic he was seeing pre-pandemic.

This prompted me to ask D’Angelo if he thinks Rolling J’s can survive COVID-19. “We’re not planning on throwing in the towel,” he said. “I can see why some people would think this is a good time to shut down or can’t help closing shop. It might get to that point for us, but we’re staying hopeful.”

As I sat in the midday shade of the four-story Exchange at Cameron Harbor, munching on D’Angelo’s extraordinary (last one!) Turkey Bacon Avocado, I thought about what a shame it would be if Chattanooga lost its beautiful bouquet of small, locally-owned restaurants before the pandemic lifts. But, like D’Angelo, I’m staying hopeful that doesn’t happen.