The Grilled Cheese Truck and O.C. Rescue Mission feed stomachs and souls

Manager Anne Ngo and volunteers Francis Gentile, left, and Casey Chamberlain, top, fill orders as they work on the Grilled Cheese Truck.
(Kevin Chang / Weekend)

As it turns out, a grilled cheese sandwich can cure more than an empty stomach.

And a for-profit business and a charity can indeed work together to accomplish good things.

That’s what Orange County Rescue Mission and The Grilled Cheese Truck found out when they collaborated to bring jobs to veterans.

Here is the concept: Veterans living at the rescue mission’s Village of Hope would learn how to prepare and serve food — including Brie melts and sandwiches made with macaroni and barbecued pork — by training in the kitchen of the transitional housing complex in Tustin. Then they would work in one of the food truck company’s vehicles, earning more than minimum wage.


Things got rolling when Mark Parkinson, executive chairman of The Grilled Cheese Truck, connected with the Orange County Rescue Mission’s president, Jim Palmer, and proposed a joining of forces. And now the project is up and running.

“We’ve met veterans who were living in the car while going to community college,” said Palmer.

“So many people talk about doing things for veterans, but it doesn’t come into fruition. We’re very excited about this partnership. As Americans, we have a heart for veterans, and this is a neat way for companies to want to be a part of it and help them.”

About 573,000 veterans out of the country’s 21.2 million were unemployed in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Orange County Rescue Mission, which has provided food, outreach and shelter to Southern California’s homeless for 52 years, is managing the booking of venues and dates for the new trucks in Orange County.

Profits from food sales will be split between the rescue mission and The Grilled Cheese Truck, which has expanded beyond Southern California to Texas and Arizona and has plans for continued growth.

“We had this vision of helping veterans gain employment and have them as the catalyst for the growth in the company, and we’re off to a pretty good start,” said Al Hodges, CEO of The Grilled Cheese Truck who has more than 35 years of experience in the retail food service industry.

“Having a veteran train another veteran and watch it become a success has become one of the most gratifying moments. We have a mission to inspire and help people with acts of service, and we feel really good about it.”

Most of the company’s trucks are over 10-years-old, but the vehicles in Orange County are new and equipped with air bags, belted seating and an anti-lock braking system to prevent the wheels from locking up.

Casey Chamberlain, a 28-year-old veteran who was stationed in Afghanistan and has been living at the Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope for three months, was serving up sandwiches on a busy Thursday night during a food truck stop off Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach.

“I’m liking it,” Chamberlain said of the training and employment. “It’s fun seeing the community, and it’s given me the opportunity to find work.”

Chamberlain is planning to move into the rescue mission’s Veterans Housing in Tustin, which is currently under construction.

It’s the mission of the partnership, Palmer said, to help the 1,388 homeless veterans in Orange County and create employment opportunities for those who struggle.

“Our first priority is helping veterans,” Palmer said. “And this is a good example of how we can make a local impact.”