The panini bus

Two out-of-work soundmen open a food truck during the pandemic

Daniel Nelson and Joel Matzinger with the Panini Machini. (Photo by Trevor Whitney)

As sound engineers, Daniel Nelson and Joel Matzinger know what it’s like to be on the road. However, with live music and everything that goes along with it canceled for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus pandemic, “being on the road” has meant serving paninis out of a renovated school bus. In September the duo opened Panini Machini, a mobile sandwich-making kitchen that’s been posting up in front of the Liquor Bank and The Commons Social Empourium and pressing a wide range of sandwich staples—including Philly cheesesteak, Cuban, BLT, as well as vegetarian options—all with names ending in “nini.” Nelson and Matzinger talked to CN&R about life without live music and how, in the meantime, they’ve kept busy making hot-and-flat sandwiches.

So what’s with the bus?
Matzinger: Oh, the bus story. On tour, you can spend countless hours writing emails and planning your catering at every stop. Everything can be dialed to a T. But somehow every day, nine times out of 10, they still bring out the hospitality from a rider from 10 years ago. And it’s always a cheese plate, a meat plate, a veggie plate and a fruit plate.

Nelson: And bread.

Matzinger: And bread, of course. I would have ungodly amounts of this shit left over, and I hate wasting it, so what I would do is freeze the fruit for smoothies, do a veggie stew in the crockpot and then with the meat and bread I’d make paninis. One day the merch guy was like, “Panini Machini,” referring to me, and I was like, “I’m fucking stealing that.” Then life came to a point where I couldn’t tour anymore. I found these two short buses and I said, “I guess I’m making one into a food truck” and I just jumped off the diving board of credit card debt and went for it. My friend Jack [Gingerich] and I—he was the drummer for The Shimmies—both lost our minds in Austin, Texas, building it in my backyard, trying to make it work, but the motor sort of blew up. I couldn’t get it fixed.

I have this amazing infrastructure in Chico and felt it was destiny to get back here. My Dad owns Transamatic [Automatic Transmission Repair], so all of my mechanical issues are solved. I packed all my shit in these two buses and got them shipped out here. It took me a year and a half to work with emissions and redo everything and I just ran out of steam and ran out of money. Life happens. Then, Daniel came in with capital and amazing ideas that brought it to the next level.

How confident were you in making a food truck work?
Nelson: Let’s be honest, this idea of redoing this food truck business only came about because both of us lost our jobs. The industry is completely gone right now. There’s no shows. I had just recently been hired as the production manager for onsite events at the [Sierra Nevada] brewery and they had to furlough the entire department. Knowing that restaurants were all closed and indoor dining couldn’t be a thing, I already started going through the thought process of what I want to do with the rest of my time and I kept landing on food trucks. It was Jack who reminded me that Joel had the buses and I’m like, “this is too perfect. This makes so much sense.” He had all the infrastructure—all it took was a little bit of re-branding, thinking of a new menu and then some capital and that was it. We had the time—we’re not working—so we put all our time and effort into this over the last four months and now we’re not even a month in and everything’s kind of fallen into place.

Matzinger: I bought the buses in 2018 and then we got everything up to code by May of this year. We were in masks while we were setting this up. I got really lucky that food trucks are a good food business in a pandemic.

How does your experience as sound engineers translate with the food truck?
Matzinger: Dude, I fiend off that shit.

Nelson: Oh yeah. We’re production people, so we’re production-minded. Everything—when it comes to running the bus and doing food services—is almost identical to doing a show. When you’re running production for a show you have your load in, which is essentially like all of your preparation. That’s like food prep here. When we did our first little pop-up kind of sneak-peak whatever you want to call it, I remember that morning having show nerves.

Matzinger: I have show nerves before almost every shift.

Nelson: If you’re not a little bit nervous when you’re up there mixing in front of thousands of people, or performing or whatever it is, then maybe you just have a crazier mental fortitude than most. But yeah there’s that nervous energy and it’s there when we’re doing service, too. It’s weird how these environments kind of mirror each other.

Matzinger: Nothing like a person yelling at you about how loud the kick drum is, which parallels to someone not liking your food. I want to please you. I’m here to make it good for you. Music and food intertwine so well in every way, maybe it’s not a surprise.

Besides tour food, where does your sandwich inspiration come from?
Nelson: Did I mention I used to manage a Togo’s?

Matzinger: That’s our tagline: “He used to manage a Togo’s.”

Nelson: The paninis are our take on everything. They’re familiar, with a little bit of a twist.

Matzinger: The “nini” twist, which might’ve backfired a little bit because we can’t understand what anyone is ordering since they all sound the same.

Nelson: The “nini” twist. That’s why we had to end up numbering them. But I just ripped that off of Togo’s too. I was like, “they number their sandwiches, we could number our sandwiches and it’s easier to hear ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ than ‘ermshkenini’ or ‘herjdfnini’”(muffled masked mutterings).

Do you regret adding the “nini” twist?
Matzinger: No.

Nelson: It’s sandwiches, man. You don’t need to be reinventing the wheel. People like seeing something slightly different and they love the familiarity. It’s like bands covering songs. You know those standards, right? Or you love the way that band does that version.

Have things been going well?
Matzinger: The following and the feedback have been amazing. The community of food trucks is real and we play off each other. We love each other’s food and I’m happy with everything that’s happening.

Nelson: Community support in general has been pretty rad. People love supporting local. It’s why I’ve stayed in Chico as long as I have. When I tell people about the bus, it’s kinda like when I used to tell my friends to come see my band play. It’s a little awkward, you’re like, “come on, come see my band, it’ll be fun.” But sure enough people would come because they just wanted to support you. If you live in Chico long enough you can develop those circles of support, which I think is pretty unique.

Matzinger: It’s definitely something that’s special about Chico. Growing up here, I wanted to get out and I did get out. That was a learning experience. I learned culture and life, my own privilege and all of these things being in that shit. Coming back here and raising my daughter is emotional and it’s awesome.

What are you looking forward to most in 2021?
Matzinger: Raining paninis on people.

Nelson: I would like to think that we’ll be in a better place as far as this pandemic is concerned and we can then take on the task of trying to figure out how we reincorporate all those things we had to give up into this new life. That should be interesting.

Matzinger: The way I feel about the bus is it can be anybody. We’re working out the procedures and the systems and to me, this is the perfect job for a gig worker. If you’re not on tour and you need to pick up some hours, come work on the bus. The schedule is set. I fiend for touring. Putting on shows is one of the greatest feelings. It’s an ego boost. It’s everything. Succeeding at that is even another level. And I get that fulfillment from this too.

Nelson: Because in both you’re making other people happy.

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