By Isaac Lorton
True Texas Smokehouse food trailer originated as Jeff’s Smoke Shack in a driveway along Route 5 in Wilder, VT. Jeff Dunning had set up smokers, a few fold-out tables, and a canopy tent overhead in front of the house he rented.
Jeff had been working at Fogg’s Hardware in Norwich when the pandemic hit, but with 27 years of experience in restaurants, he missed cooking for a living. And as a single father, he needed to provide for his two kids. So he took a smoking course online and began putting his experience towards doing what he enjoyed — making Texas style barbecue. Whether it was the sight or smell that stopped them, people began pulling over to see if the smoked meat was for sale.
It was. That is, until the town of Hartford called to tell him that he had to shut down Jeff’s Smoke Shack operations because the property was not zoned for commercial use.
“The town finally just told me I had to stop, which is fine,” Jeff said. “When I started everything, I didn’t realize that Hartford had a zoning ordinance for me to sell out of my driveway. I went through all the state and all the federal, I got my EIN, I got everything. I didn’t even think about talking to the town because it’s in my own driveway.”
On the same day that he was told to stop selling barbecue out of his driveway, Jeff found a food trailer available in New Hampshire. Jeff called his parents, who loaned him the money to purchase the trailer the following day.
“They’ve had my barbeque, they’ve had my food, they knew what I was doing,” Jeff said. “So they said, ‘let’s do it.’ I didn’t even have a pickup truck, so I had to buy a pickup truck to tow it.”
Jeff took the next two weeks to prepare the food trailer and make sure his business was in order.
“The town was really good with me,” Jeff said. “When I was getting my license for the food trailer, [Zoning Administrator Jo-Ann Ells] was actually heading out on vacation, but she ran back into the office just to sign my permit, so I could sell for that weekend. Even though there was a hiccup between me and the town, they were very helpful. Jo-Ann and her secretary Brenda [Lamphere] have always been very helpful for anything I need. It’s nice because a lot of places if you piss them off, they don’t help you.”
The food trailer began selling barbecue on July 1st as Jeff’s Smoke Shack in front of Coventry Catering in Wilder, but the smoke shack was in his driveway, so the name became True Texas Smokehouse.
“I’ve always loved barbeque and nobody around here does Texas style,” Jeff said. “Texas style is slow-smoked with wood and charcoal — mostly wood, but some charcoal to keep it going. Slow smoked at 225, and it’s rubbed with salt and pepper. That’s all my meat is rubbed down with: salt and pepper. It comes out juicy and it comes out perfect. And I don’t smother any barbeque sauce on it. If you want barbeque sauce, I have a bottle of my barbeque sauce and I squirt it on top… So you can actually have the flavor of the meat.”
Jeff began serving up pulled pork for sandwiches and to top his gooey mac 'n’ cheese; smoked chicken and ribs, with sides of classic coleslaw; subtly spicy smoked beef chili; and sweet and spicy baked beans made with jalapenos.
The pulled pork is tender, smokey, and peppery, shining through as the star of a sandwich. You can get the sandwich without any toppings, but I opted for Jeff’s homemade tangy, bit-of-heat barbecue sauce with coleslaw on top. The mac 'n’ cheese was extra creamy. The baked beans are where it is at. Initially you are hit with the sweetness of brown sugar and cinnamon, and then the jalapeno lingers and sizzles on the taste buds between bites.
Jeff gets his meat from Robie Farm in Piermont, NH, picking up the meat the morning he plans to smoke it. He then gives leftovers to friends and family or donates it to The Haven.
“I don’t waste anything, but I won’t reuse it either,” Jeff said. “I’m not going to be one of the places that reheats the same meat 10 times.”
Oak lump coal and pallets of apple wood fuel the five smokers in Jeff’s driveway. Since he began selling out of the mobile trailer and catering events, Jeff has seen an increase in demand. On busy weeks, he will smoke around 36 pork butts, approximately 360 pounds of pork.
With the increase in demand, he has been able to make upgrades to his smoke shack in the front yard. Now a wooden structure with a ventilation system, Jeff hopes this will take his cooking to a new level.
“My dream would be to get a bigger trailer, or even get a takeout restaurant,” Jeff said. “I don’t want to live in a food truck for the rest of my life.”
For the next month, Jeff will be cooking his “comfort food” menu along Route 5 in Wilder in front of the Coventry Catering building at 1773 Hartford Ave. Still serving the pulled pork and chicken, as well as the mac 'n’ cheese, chili, and coleslaw, the updated menu will feature smoked beef stew, corn chowder with smoked bacon, biscuits and gravy with spicy smoked sausage, and beef and chicken tacos.
With two propane heaters for people waiting in line, Jeff said he will continue serving up smoky meals out of the trailer into December, as long as the weather isn’t too below freezing.