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WHEN ABBY RHODES PRESENTS A CUSTOMER with a grilled cheese sandwich—whether a two-cheddar classic on sourdough bread or a sandwich bread with bacon jam or guacamole—they’re getting much more than a mighty fine meal. They’re also part of the ridiculously charming story of how that sandwich—and the food truck that produces it, Cheddar Box—came to be. And Rhodes can only marvel at how the whole story has unfolded.
“There are two things I said I would never do in my life, and I’ve done them both,” Rhodes says. After 9/11, Rhodes said she’d never move to Iraq. Then she did—she taught English for a nonprofit organization there several years ago. And the other thing she said she’s never do was open a food business. “And here I am,” she sys with a laugh.
One could say that she has been prepping for this role—nay, this calling—since she was a kid. “At age 10, I wanted to pretend to run my own business,” instead of playing with dolls, she says. When she hit her teen years, she actually did operate a couple of one-person shops—as a babysitter and car detailed—which she marketed with flyers mailed to families she knew. And in college she sold about $2,000 worth of her own handmade jewelry and seemed to be on an arrow-shot trajectory to business school and an MBA.
Well, except that “I was insecure about whether I’d be good at business,” Rhodes says. “And my parents always advised me to do what makes sense, to have job security—and there’s wisdom in that. They wanted to be sure i had a job and wasn’t struggling. It just so happened that I loved communication and I loved people, so I went into speech pathology in college.”
But from the get-go it was clear that Rhodes had a gift not only for entrepreneurship but also for hospitality.
She was always the go-to gal for planning parties (birthday, engagement, holiday, what-have-you), “and food is always a really big part of the event,” she says. “I’m not a great cook, but I know how to pair things well. I happen to know that tastes good, and other people seem to agree. I can’t tell you. Ow many times people. Have told me over the years that I should be in the food business.”
But she was not in the food business—she’d vowed never to be, remember?—and instead spent dearly a decade as a speech therapist at a Waco, Texas clinic.
Right around her 30th birthday, in 2013, Rhodes sensed a shift in her soul. Random idea after seemingly random idea popped up, all pointing in the same (seemingly random) direction: crafting grilled cheese sandwiches as a business venture.
For example, Rhodes remembers hearing about a food truck in another city that serves gourmet grilled cheese, and her interest was piqued. She filed that tidbit away in her brain. And then one day while driving around town, the name Cheddar Box popped in mind. “That sounds like a grilled cheese sandwich,” she remembers thinking to herself, “because a sandwich is square, and it’s like a ‘cheddar box.’
“And in that moment,” she says, “the dream and passion to start a business reignited”—but this time, instead of jewelry or car washes, she’d be selling sandwiches. Succulent, toasty, hot-off-the-flat-top grilled cheese sandwiches with approachable ingredients so that customers wouldn’t be scared off, but fancy enough that a meal would be a treat—not something they could just make at home.
Rhodes began brainstorming with friends about low-risk opportunities to try her idea. A friend had started a crepe stand at the farmers market in downtown Waco, and that seemed like the perfect avenue and audience for grommet grilled cheese. So, every Saturday, starting in August 2014, Rhodes and a partner set up a stand and crafted ooey, gooey grilled cheese for the hungry masses at the farmers market. Wacoans flocked to the new venture.
“We went to support her on opening day,” says longtime friend Jessica Shewan of herself and her husband, Jay, “and it was just a madhouse. People were trying the samples, and the lines went on forever.”
Jessica, eight months pregnant a the time, even jumped in to cut sandwiches and hand them out to customers to keep the lines moving.
“It was an exhausting time,” Rhodes says. “I worked full-time, I did food prep on Friday, and I’d be out there most of the day on Saturday.”
She and her partner planned to reassess after six months to determine if they were up for continuing, and after that time was up, “I realized Waco was supporting us well, so we decided to keep doing it.” Her partner later decided to leave, but Rhodes stayed at it for about a year. “I had no plans about quitting my job and opening a storefront,” she says. “ I was waiting for the right door to open.”
It was around this time that Rhodes had the chance to cater on the set for Chip and Jo, and they were really impressed. So much so that they asked Rhodes to open a food truck on the premises of the Magnolia Silos, which were about to open in downtown Waco.
“They were cheerleading me on!” Rhodes says. “They gave me confidence that this was a product people want. Their encouragement planted a seed, and we got an official ask to open a food truck at the Silos a week later.”
Rhodes barley hesitated. “Then I went and talked with my bosses at the clinic,” she says. “They were like, ‘Abby, we love you. We support you. There’s no way you’re not doing this. Whatever we can do to help you, let us know.”
Rhodes quit her job, bought a food truck, renovated it, closed on a house purchase, and launched Cheddar Box at the Silos grand opening—all within two whirlwind months. “The timing was ridiculous,” she says, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It just lined up exactly.”
For two years now, Rhodes and the Cheddar Box team have served a streamlined but sublime menu of cheese sandwiches and mac ‘n cheese, all cooked to hot, melty perfection on the truck’s flat-top grill.
Five sandwiches (including one that’s on the sweet side) and three flavors of macaroni round out the options, and customers can even opt for gluten-free bread or vegan cheese. Many of the products are sourced locally.
“I love to refer to Waco as ‘a small town with big ideas,’” Rhodes says. “It’s a great place to start businesses, and we have a lot of them. I feel passionately about showcasing and supporting them, as well as giving people a more holistic taste of Waco. I like to really live and experience where you are.”
She also feels strongly that she’s “called to make money to give money.” It’s an axiom she inherited from her grandmother. Rhodes is learning what that saying means for the owner of a business that went form selling 5,000 items in its first year to 100,000 items in its second.
“I thought it meant giving money to the poor or to a friend in need,” she says. “But now I see that it also means giving people jobs, paying them what they’re worth, and donating to nonprofits. Recently, I’ve also realized that when we sell a sandwich, that money goes to a local vendor too—now our cheese supplier and bakers have money to pay for their needs. It’s really cool to see how everything is connected.”
MEET the BOSS
Cheddar Box's best-selling sandwich, The Boss, deftly combines Gouda cheese, bacon, and fresh chopped basil on sourdough bread, all cooked to toasty perfection on the truck's flat-top grill. Shown here is the gluten-free bread, an option that's so tasty a lot of the truck's staffers choose it over the (also delightful) sourdough bread. Local bakery, Baked Bliss, developed the recipe specially for Cheddar Box.