Food For Thought

Not only does -Bearly Edible- make the ‘world’s greatest grilled cheese sandwich,’ they make friends wherever they go.

by Lee Abraham

I’ve never been an adventurous eater. Especially on the road. Put me in my own kitchen and sure, anything’s possible. But bouncing from town to town raises the stakes on the old gastro gamble to that of, er, a high stakes crap shoot. It’s a game nobody can afford to lose.

Going from one place to the next, I never cease to marvel at the consistent excellence of the IHOP buttermilk flapjack. Doesn’t matter if you’re in Vegas, New York, or on the back roads of America’s heartland. Well traveled breakfast enthusiasts know starting the day with a steamin’ stack-o-golden hot cakes and IHOP’s world famous, bottomless pot of coffee is a safe bet anywhere. Tasty too.

Same thing with -Bearly Edible-. Well, sort of. First of all, -Bearly- doesn’t deal in pancakes. No, the good folks working the summer music and camping festival circuit’s most popular food booth are all about grilled cheese sandwiches. Not just -any- grilled cheese sandwich. We’re talkin’ flavorful, crisp on the outside, warm and gooey in the middle, grilled cheese sandwiches that live up to their billing as the ‘world’s greatest.’ And -Bearly Edible’s- French toast in the mornin’ ain’t too shabby either.

Oh yeah. Unlike IHOP, which is pretty much everywhere, -Bearly Edible- is only where Mark Bearly happens to be at any given time. He’s the big cheese at -Bearly Edible-. And a heckuva nice guy. Back in the mid ‘90s, Bearly was hawking grilled cheese in parking lots on tour with the Grateful Dead. Then came Phish. And shortly thereafter, the big step up from shakedown street bootlegging to vending at music and camping festivals. -Bearly Edible’s- first weekend festival was in ’96 at the ‘Bread and Puppet’ festival in Vermont. Since then, the mobile sandwich maker has fed hungry groovemeisters at festivals from coast to coast.

Comparable to having a party in your mouth, at only a buck each, eating -Bearly Edible’s- grilled cheese sandwiches are not only affordable, they’re habit forming. "Everyone has a dollar in their pocket," says Bearly. He must be right. Regardless of the time of day, if -Bearly Edible- is open for business, there will be a line of people waiting for grilled cheese.

But there’s more to -Bearly Edible’s- grilled cheese sandwiches than just the cheap thrill. There’s the unforgettable taste. Ask Bearly about his secret recipe and he speaks in generalities. "It’s evolved over time," he says with a smile. "I will say this, the garlic salt powder is very important. Actually, the cheese has nothing to do with it. The cheese holds the bread together. It’s the seasoning."

Everywhere -Bearly Edible- goes, people agree. In addition to making thousands of grilled cheese sandwiches at the summer’s busier festivals, as well as countless bowls of their wonderful veggie chilli, they make plenty of friends in the process. "We get to know a lot of the people that buy sandwiches and all of a sudden they’re your friend," says Mark’s wife Kelly, who was a -Bearly Edible- customer at a Phish show in Maine in ‘97, before meeting her future husband at a Ratdog concert in Albany later that year. "This booth is great, because people hang out and that makes it a lot of fun." Bearly agrees. "So many people come up to me and say something like, ‘Oh, I had breakfast with you in Florida at Phish,’ and things like that. Just the fact that they remember, and we connect, is great!

What was once the carefree adventure of fooling around on tour while selling sandwiches in the parking lot, has grown into something more. "We do stuff, different types of things just for the kids on tour," says Bearly. "We might make 40 portions of Thai noodles or something like that. Most of these kids know me by name. A lot of people who do this every week, they eat horribly. They might eat HoHos and Twinkies all week long. and if I can give them good, healthily, nutritious food twice a week, it’s a big kick for me. This is exactly what I do. It’s a lot of work and not always fun or relaxing, but I get a lot of satisfaction with it."