VANELIS RIVERA / KELLY MOORE CLARK
As demand grew for Jamaro Hill’s meals-on-wheels, he parked his food truck in favor of setting up shop in the brick and mortar establishment, The Cookout.
The recent rise of the food truck has presented a convenient and satisfactory alternative for our lunch and dinner plans. Whether we favor the traditional hot dog or taco cart, opt for gourmet or fusion cuisines, or perhaps want to indulge in something in between, the variety of food trucks seems never-ending. New and varied mobile kitchens continue to pop up, and have proven to be a kickstarter for culinary professionals and even home cooks that aim to start their own small business. Much easier to open and less expensive, these “lunch wagons” (as they have been called), have become a means to a more significant end. The growth of the industry has opened up expansion for many food truck owners to spark a new chapter in their careers, and Jamaro Hill is one such owner. As demand grew for his meals-on-wheels, he parked his truck in favor of setting up shop in the brick and mortar establishment The Cookout.
A transplant from Oakland, California, Hill moved to Monroe at an early age, graduating from Carroll High School. When he began clubbing in bustling cities like Dallas, he noticed a feature that he felt was missing from Monroe: “There were food trucks everywhere.” At the time, he was working sixteen hours a day, five days a week (sometimes six) for Graphic Packaging International in West Monroe. He thought, “Man, if I’m gonna work ninety hours a week, I might as well do it for myself.” Having enough savings to invest in himself and with food trucks on his mind, he began to consider owning a business. In 2016 his vision came to fruition in the form of a wings and burger food truck he named The Cookout, as a nod to the communal nature of lining up for food and eating in close quarters: “You have a cookout, and everybody’s sitting around and they eat.”
Though Hill has never worked in the restaurant business before starting his food service, he’s been cooking since he was thirteen years old. “My grandmother taught me how to cook. We never really ate fast-food growing up because we couldn’t afford it, and so it was a meal being prepared, you know, two, three times a day. So I had to learn how to cook in order to eat,” he says. By way of his early introduction to cooking and some trial and error, he perfected his wings and burgers, which left only the last step of the process—taking his food on the road. It took a little time for the food truck to gain traction, but parking it outside of businesses during the day and waiting for ravenous club-goers at night steadily marked him as a go-to for quality munchies. Once the word of mouth spread, so did his customers, which over the span of five years has evolved into a strong and loyal base. “The city and surrounding states support me well. You know, we have people drive from Ruston, Rayville, Winnsboro, Bastrop, all the time just to eat our food,” he beams. Success came easily for The Cookout on wheels, making Hill consider whether he should get another food truck or try a permanent location, something he’d always wanted to do. The perfect spot opened last year at a time that Hill was ready for the leap. The simplicity of the menu made the transition simple. He kept the name and even the logo, a cartoon chef riding a red moped carrying a covered serving dish, and only added more sides and flavor options.
“Everybody likes chicken. So we gonna do chicken, and I didn’t want to do regular chicken,” Hill says referring to adding sauce options that would jazz up an already delectably fried item. Currently, The Cookout offers sixteen flavors ranging from fan-favorites like Buffalo Mild, Honey BBQ, Lemon Pepper, and Garlic Parmesan to more curious options like Mango Habanero, Spicy BBQ Bourbon, and The Cookout’s Signature Rub. Wing combos are available and include small fries and any drink from their menu, which includes sweet tea and Kool-Aid. The other star of the menu is Hill’s all-beef burgers. It took him a month to put together a burger recipe to his liking and that of his customers. When he had the food truck he noticed there were diehard wing people and strictly burger fans, so upon constructing his restaurant menu he aimed to unify the groups via The Cookout Combo: a single burger, four wings, fries, and a drink. The cross menu item has allowed wing people to venture into burger land once in a while and vice versa, another perk of maintaining an uncluttered menu.
Hill takes pride in the care he gives each menu item, but he is slightly more partial to his burgers, probably because they are ground fresh every morning and made by hand. “I season [the meat] every morning. I got a kind of little routine. I don’t even measure. I’ve been doing this a long time,” explains Hill. The juiciness of his patties is probably due to his brisket blend, which consists of eighty percent brisket. The quarter-pound patties can be ordered single, double, or triple, with the choice of a variety of cheeses like Swiss and Pepper Jack and toppings like bacon, mushrooms, jalapenos, and grilled onions. Either way, Hill is happy to oblige the varying tastes of his customers. “Any type of way you want your burger, we offer it. I don’t care if you want a napkin on your burger, we’ll put it on there,” he laughs. Don’t hesitate to ask for a medium or rare burger, the request will be granted. Craving extra protein? Ask Hill to add an egg. And if you make your burger meal a combo, you can’t go wrong with his home-made french fries or macaroni and cheese. Other sides include crinkle-cut fries, onion rings, and side salads.
The changeover from road-side food operation to one-stop-shop may have been easy, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t come with its own challenges. “Stuff happens every single day,” he says, mentioning that not long ago he had a leak in his roof that ended up collapsing it. But, that’s true for any business. Even when he owned the food truck there would be times the generator failed. Fryers and grills can go out, an employee can quit at the last minute. “You just have to be ready for it and not collapse. You have to stay strong. Whatever you’re doing to keep yourself sane, you have to hold on to that.” One of the greatest lessons he has learned throughout his years in food service is that every problem has a solution, even if you have to work a little bit harder to find one: “You have to keep pushing no matter what, by any means necessary.”As a spiritual man, whenever Hill gets flustered he turns to his foundation: “I just, you know, go to my corner, talk it out with God, and then I get back right to it.”
There’s no question that starting any business in the middle of a pandemic is daring, but since opening The Cookout the door has kept swinging. “I thank God every morning. I’m still amazed when I pull out of my parking lot and see the sign. I’m very humbled,” he says, adding, “The community is the reason why I am where I am today.” He has learned that the customers are the focal point and has made sure they are always satisfied, happy, and wanting to come back for more. “We try our best,” he says, explaining that even if your food order doesn’t come out to your liking, at the very least customer service will be friendly and accommodating. Hill admits he hasn’t always gotten things right. Learning from his mistakes and taking accountability has been key to his success, especially when it concerns customers. “Whenever a customer comes and tells me something, I don’t look at it as complaining. I look at it as them just spending their hard-earned money with me, and they just want to get their money’s worth. And I like it when they come and tell me what’s going on, so I can go back and fix it.”
The Cookout has steadily become a recognized establishment and receives customers as far as Dallas. But, becoming a local food staple is never a one-man job. Hill has been inspired by other local business owners, calling them “colleagues,” and mentioning a few restaurant owners including those of 2Dudes Brew & Que, Southern Mixing Pot, Kravins, and King of Wings. “I’m inspired by them every day,” he continues. Particularly due to the pandemic, Hill admires any small business owner that has managed to keep operations going. “Spending local does matter,” he stresses, acknowledging that supporting small businesses keeps the region thriving; not to mention, many local restaurants create a better option than the “bigger” fast-food chains. “We have a lot of good local talent in Monroe, and I like to support local.”
Not every food truck owner endeavors to go the brick and mortar route, but sometimes that’s the door that opens. For Hill, the food has always been the easy part. Following what he enjoys and striving to maintain integrity in his business, especially with how he treats employees and handles his finances, has been the building blocks to The Cookout then and now. “There’s nothing special about me,” says Hill, who makes a point to credit God for his success. It’s a statement that stems from gratitude, and while he may be just like any one of us, his 4.9 out of 5 rating on Facebook suggests otherwise.
The Cookout is located at 1301 N 18th St. in Monroe. Call them at 318-855-8224 for information about party trays and follow them on Facebook to keep up with specials and their recent Taco Tuesdays.