BANGOR, Maine — Even tucked into the left front corner of the expansive Sam’s Club parking lot, it’s difficult to miss the bright, neon yellow food truck with the purplish-red letters on the side.
Even though the beef and chorizo sausage fillings were sold out on this hot, humid afternoon, Kirsten Pilot, her husband Chris, and stepson Henry — sweat slowly beading and trickling down their foreheads and onto their black T-shirts — were still manning the service window.
Saturday was just the third day of business for Cielos Mexican Grill, but the mobile Mexican kitchen on wheels nicknamed “Mathilda” has gotten off to a start as hot as the weather the past two weeks.
“We were supposed to be at the Kmart parking lot Thursday from 11 to 3, but we ran out of food and had to close at 1:30 [p.m.],” said Chris Pilot, who along with 19-year-old son Juergen and 12-year-old Henry have been helping operate the truck this week. “We served about 120 people that day.”
Cielos Mexican Grill is the brainchild of Kirsten Pilot, a native German and former executive assistant for a vice president at a clothing company in Liechtenstein now residing in Holden.
“I have a great passion for Mexican food from traveling all over the world,” said Pilot, who moved to Maine last June, married Chris, and soon came to miss having access to fresh ethnic food and dishes.
“I was starving for it. As a European, I’m used to fresh food and not microwaves, fast food and quick meals,” she said. “It was at the end of February that I had the idea for this.
“I figured why not? I have a passion for cooking and everybody is still alive after eating my cooking.”
While Cielos may mean “Heaven” in Spanish, the owner and operator of the vibrantly colored truck prides herself on creating a devilishly good menu featuring hard and soft tacos, burritos, bowls and salads.
The four main items on the menu can then be stuffed with items ranging from meat (beef, chicken, steak and chorizo sausage), vegetables (peppers and onions), brown or white rice, pinto or black beans, and homemade salsa and guacamole.
“Most of my food items are as local as possible,” Pilot said. “The main ingredients are local, but the spices are from New Mexico.”
Despite an initial setback when early rains and cloudy skies prompted the Pilots to cancel opening day last Wednesday, business has been brisk.
“People are so nice, even when we’ve run out of things,” said Chris Pilot, who estimated they had served an average of just under 100 people per day. “They’ve also been surprisingly patient, and nobody left before being served.”
Their recent foray into private business and the mobile food service industry has been a study in patience for the Pilots.
Their first reality check came in the prices for new versus used trucks. They found one on the Internet, and found services that charged $2,000 to $5,000 just to bring the truck back.
“So I took a $180 one-way ticket to Phoenix and drove it home. It was an adventure,” said Chris Pilot, a physics professor at Maine Maritime Academy who has summers off.
Then came further evaluation of their purchase.
“In one sentence, the truck was a disaster,” Pilot said. “The tires were old and bald. I can’t think of one piece of equipment that was working and we had to have it retrofitted with a fire suppression system.”
A lot more time and expense later, the truck was lunch-worthy and ready for business.
Meanwhile, Kirsten Pilot was planning the menu and scouting potential locations for the lunch wagon-gone-south-of-the border.
“It was much more expensive and took much longer to do everything than we expected, but finding locations was much easier than we expected,” said Kirsten Pilot. “It has to be visible, well-frequented, and busy, and it took us a little over a month to get three locations set up.”
While the Pilots initially decided on three primary locations to park their truck on a rotating basis, their success at the Kmart parking lot off Hogan Road has caused them to reevaluate.
“It’s such a great location, and we were attracting people to come in right off the road, so we’re going to stick with that, with the option to move it around as we go,” said Chris Pilot.
Cielos is a self-made business.
“We didn’t take out any loans to do this. This is all our baby,” said Chris Pilot. “This is primarily Kirsten’s business. I think she has a good business sense.
She wants to be her own entrepreneur and this is a good vehicle for her.”
Kirsten rolled her eyes and laughed nervously.
“I think Bangorians are more open to this type of Mexican food. There isn’t really anything else like it around and I’m sure it will be successful,” she said, still laughing.
Cielos is open Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.