In a LebTown-exclusive interview, Jazzie Battle shared his journey from having $6 to his name to having two businesses: Poncho’s Backyard Grubbin’ and Rome’s Rentals.
Battle is the founder and owner of Poncho’s Backyard Grubbin’, a food truck business that has been specializing in smoked meats since 2010.
The success of Battle’s food truck business and the purchase of his first house allowed him to purchase his grandfather’s former residence from his aunt and transform it into Rome’s Rentals, an affordable housing business named after his other grandfather.
Battle, who turned 39 on Aug. 16, said his passion for cooking started when he was about 10 years old, after being hospitalized with cancer for two years.
Battle’s mother taught him to cook. Entering the restaurant industry, he worked as a busser at Hard Rock Cafe in Atlantic City until he ultimately earned a position as a line cook.
“As I got older, you know, life comes and things happen. And I kind of strayed away from cooking,” Battle said. “But, there was a point of time in my life, things weren’t the best.”
In the early 2000s, Battle was living on Mifflin Street with $6 to his name. He turned to his mother for career advice.
“I said, ‘Mom, you know, I don’t like working for people, per se.’ I always felt creating my own way of making money was what I was more interested in.”
“And she said, ‘Why don’t you, you know, you have barbeques, and people come over to your house all the time.’ She says, ‘Why don’t you take the money you have, go buy some meat, and charge people for plates.’ And that’s what I did.”
Battle used his $6 to buy a 10-pound bag of rice and beans. He remembered selling four or five plates in his first attempt.
Battle felt discouraged, but his mother reminded him that people, including herself, enjoyed the food he made and encouraged him to try again.
In his second attempt, he sold 54 plates, charging about $5 or $6 per plate. He used his earnings to upgrade his grill, an old Weber grill with broken legs that he propped up on bricks under his fire steps.
Victor Rodriguez, Battle’s cousin and the one who gave him the Weber grill, started selling plates with him to raise money for local charities, fundraisers, and people in need, such as those who needed help covering funeral expenses.
“I believe if I’m blessed with something, I need to go bless another person,” Battle said. “That’s how you keep the blessing going. I can’t just let that blessing stop at me.”
Although Battle and Rodriguez ultimately chose different career paths, it was through brainstorming with Rodriguez that Battle decided to name his food truck business in memory of his late grandfather, Alfonso “Pancho” Albino Santana.
Battle said Santana was a “family man,” with nine children, 30 grandchildren, 58 great-grandchildren, and nine great-great-grandchildren.
“The memories that I remember of him, apart [from] him passing away, was family and friends and everybody getting together in his backyard and breaking bread together,” Battle said their relatives would catch planes for Albino’s birthday parties in Harrisburg every June. “You know, the good old days.”
Battle continued to reminisce about his late grandfather: “He had a smoker there [in his backyard], too. And I remember him cooking on it the one day and me just sitting there over his shoulder and watching him. And he’s showing me what he’s cooking. … And my grandmother bringing rice and beans on over to the house. And everybody just pitching in. And that’s really when I started to get a passion for cooked meats.”
The family through line in Battle’s journey to becoming a business owner continued. Battle started to work two jobs — and put his passion for cooking on the back burner — when he gained full custody of one of his daughters.
Years later, Battle married his now-wife, Melissa. He approached her about prioritizing his passion for cooking again.
“I said, ‘I want to see if I still got it.’ And she says, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘Well, you remember when I used to sell plates in Lebanon.’ … I said, ‘Let’s see, because people, you know, they’ll hit me up: ‘Hey, Jazz, when you going to cook again? I want to buy some of that grub. It’s been forever.”
His wife agreed.
Battle made a brisket and, to the best of his memory, sweet potato bites and a green of some kind. In 45 minutes, Battle sold out of 50 plates, charging $10 per plate.
To see if the success was a fluke, Battle attempted to sell plates again. He sold out of 75 plates in about half an hour. His wife bought him a new smoker for that Father’s Day, and Battle started selling plates on a more regular basis.
Battle was soon involved in an accident and was diagnosed with epilepsy, which resulted in him having seizures and losing jobs.
“Time goes on. And the epilepsy seems to be under control,” Battle said. “So, I had a brand-new motorcycle I just purchased. And I’m in the garage, you know, I’m just down and out. And I’m saying, ‘God, like, what do you want me to do? I feel like there’s more to life than this.’
“I’m wiping the dust off the seat of my motorcycle in the garage. And, for the first time in my life, I could tell you personally I literally heard Jesus telling me. He said, ‘Sell your bike and chase your dream.’ And I got goosebumps. And I kind of stood there. And I was looking around as if somebody was in the room, in my garage, with me. Ain’t nobody was in there but me and my motorcycle.”
Battle, who considers himself to be a religious person, heard the voice again before he went to tell his wife, who works from home. She responded, “‘Shut up. You’re not selling that thing. You love that thing.'” But Battle was serious and listed his motorcycle for sale.
“A guy in the army out in the Gap, he bought it from me,” Battle said. “And the exact dollar amount he bought it from me, I found an … all-white box truck, which used to be an Italian ice food truck out in Philadelphia. But the thing was all beat up. And me and my wife, we went out there. We saw it. We purchased it. We drove it back. It gets into my driveway. And then, I say, ‘What’s next?'”
With the help of his local friend who owns a food truck, Battle transformed the food truck in 10 months, through the winter, using his savings. Through the process, Battle learned how to install gas lines and equipment and how to do some plumbing, electrical, and vehicular work.
Battle also learned how to keep books, how to prepare and cook food in different ways, and, more importantly, how to properly treat employees: “like family.” Battle was driven to become an entrepreneur after feeling unvalued and replaceable as an employee.
“I decided to teach both of my daughters how to run this business,” Battle said. “And they’re still learning just like I’m learning, you know. I learn new things every day with this business.”
Battle’s wife and daughters, Makenna Maria Battle, 11, and Jayelle Antonia Battle, 15, now play specific roles in the family business.
Makenna Maria sets up the food truck sign and learns how to smoke meats and cook food. Jayelle Antonia works the cash register and interacts with customers. Melissa is the line cook and gets the food out the window when Battle is cooking.
In an effort to control waste, the food truck started with three items on the menu and, a little while later, grew to five items.
“This summer, I wanted to do some other things, more comfort foods, backyard grubbin’ foods,” Battle said.
Aside from a soft run, the food truck’s first official gig was at Hollywood Casino at the Penn National Race Course.
“I had no idea what I was doing. Food truck business is completely different from cooking in an actual kitchen at a restaurant,” Battle said. “Right, so we go out there, and I believe we were there for like six or eight hours. We sold out of literally everything we had, came home. We counted the money. And I literally sat down in a corner, and I cried. And I just looked at my wife, and I said, ‘We did it.'”
Since then, Poncho’s Backyard Grubbin’ has participated in local events as well as fundraisers for cancer organizations and local schools.
“We’ve been doing private parties for many well-known businesses that have been around for many, many years,” Battle said. “They’ve inquired us to come cater their party — bring the food truck and cook them some backyard grub.”
Battle described the work that goes into each event. They drive up to an hour to Reading, Lancaster, and Harrisburg to source the food. They prepare the food in the food truck for hours. They load up the food truck and run down their checklist before driving to the event location and setting up. They serve hungry attendees. And they drive home and clean up.
Although he was not able to share specific details due to contracts, Battle said he is looking into the possibility of obtaining a set location for Poncho’s Backyard Grubbin’.
“Running a food truck, by all means, it is fun,” Battle said. “Yes, we’re at festivals. We’re having fun. People are smiling. We get to go to a different location all the time.”
However, Battle said weather conditions heavily impact the business’s performance, and a set location would help remedy that.
Battle wanted to encourage those with dreams to take the jump and stop being an obstacle for themselves. With persistence, patience, and the right timing, a lesson instilled in him over the years by his father, Battle said success is possible.
“I was broke with a dream of everything that I have now,” Battle said. “I own multiple houses. I own two businesses. And it literally all came from that $6 and a wonderful wife that has not left my side and has supported me in every crazy thought and idea I had.”
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