The section of north Main Street in Rockland between the Dunkin’ Donuts and the McDonald’s isn’t exactly a world-renowned culinary hotspot. It’s an area of town that has seen plenty of businesses come and go, attracting the kind of hardscrabble retail endeavors that never seem to last long. The strip is now mostly a string of vacant or perpetually “for rent” commercial properties, with faded and torn-down signs reminding passing motorists of the gas station, the pizza place, the mattress store, the hubcap guy, that used to be there. Set back from the road at the intersection of Main and James streets, in a parking lot that is just starting to be given over to weeds poking through the asphalt, a lone food trailer is doing a brisk seasonal business, a bright spot of activity in the otherwise bleak series of empty parking lots facing Lermond Cove.
Duo’s seafood and burger takeout shack was started four seasons ago, by founders Isaac Brower and Steven Ford, at the ripe old age of seventeen. It’s a Summer job teens and twentysomethings (not to mention many people twice their age) dream of: they make their own hours, slinging burgers and haddock sandwiches to tourists and locals alike.
“Steven and I started the business,” Brower (now 21 years old) explains, “but he went away for college, and so we brought Cooper [Fitzgerald] on in his place.”
The duo first had the idea for the takeout restaurant five years ago. All they were missing was a concession trailer. At first, they thought about approaching a bank for a small business loan to purchase the equipment they needed. “We really didn’t like the idea of paying interest to the bank for a loan, though,” says Brower, “So we borrowed the money to buy the truck from my dad. We made a deal: instead of paying interest on the loan, we take the interest we would have paid the bank, and donate it to charity. We commit to donating at least $500 every Summer.” The rest of the money earned each season goes right back into school; a dollar bill-stuffed tip jar on the counter reads “College Books Fund.”
After doing a little research on the food truck (and by “research,” I mean, “looking at their Facebook page“), I learned that several customers suggested asking for the “secret menu” when ordering. My request sent Brower and Fitzgerald into fits of laughter. “Yeah, we have a secret menu,” Fitzgerald explained, “but seriously, who told you about that?” Apparently, the whole notion of a “secret menu” began as a bit of a joke, shared only among Isaac and Cooper’s friends; they seemed surprised to hear that it was becoming public knowledge.
“I guess we’re gonna have to come up with some more secret menu items,” Fitzgerald said.
The concept is simple: The secret menu item costs seven bucks, and all Isaac and Cooper will tell you before you commit to ordering is what kind of main ingredient the item is based on. After learning that today’s secret menu ingredient was simply “beef,” I happily agreed, braced for what was to come.
Jillian tried Duo’s haddock sandwich ($7.50), made with fresh fish purchased from Jess’s Market in Rockland, a specialty local seafood shop which also supplies the likes of nearby restaurants Primo and Francine Bistro. We were impressed by the huge haddock filet, perfectly fried until golden brown in light, crispy Panko breadcrumbs, and topped with a single leaf of Romaine on a griddled roll. The sandwich was also dressed with Fitzgerald’s ratcheted-up twist on classic mayo-and-relish tartar sauce, adding whole mustard seed, minced onion, and a little garlic powder to the mix. It’s the kind of thoughtful detail that’s a nice touch in any restaurant, but especially surprising to see coming from such young cooks. The onion rings ($2.50) were treated with the same care; thickly cut rings of sweet onion are here drenched in a crisp beer batter and fried until crispy, without getting heavy or greasy.
As for the secret menu item? Fitzgerald revealed a 1/3 pound bacon cheeseburger, that uses two toasted grilled cheese sandwiches in place of top and bottom buns. It’s not a new idea (even family-friendly national chain Friendly’s sells a version, now), but the glee and pride with which Fitzgerald presented it proved pretty infectious. Even without the glorious excess of grilled cheese sandwich buns, this was a great grass-fed burger, with a good crust from the flattop and plenty of crispy bacon. I couldn’t finish it, but it was enough to convince me to try the food truck’s tamer cheeseburger menu offerings on my next visit.
You have to hand it to the guys at Duo’s. At 21 years old, I couldn’t even manage to get out of bed on most days, let alone run my own successful food business. Unlike a lot of people their age, partners Brower and Fitzgerald aren’t spending their summers vacantly flipping burgers for a massive chain that doesn’t care about their future, and they’re not spending their vacation time in a fog of pot smoke and Aqua Teen Hunger Force reruns. Instead, their business is thriving, due to the care and attention with which they treat their food and their customers. It’s a foundation on which they’ll build successful careers, and for now, it’s a great place to grab a burger or an inexpensive basket of fish and chips. Hurry: Duo’s closes for the season during the third week of August.
Duo’s Takeout: 734 Main Street, Rockland, ME (map); 207-975-2557