Eight years ago, George Nickols decided he wanted more control over his life. He left a job in auto sales, hired someone to retrofit a truck and put his part-time catering experience into a rolling food business,
Nickols, 52, now owns Lilly’s Cantina, named after his 13-year-old daughter who sometimes works on the truck. His son, Donnie, also works for him.
Lilly’s Cantina specializes in “traditional Mexican food with a gourmet edge,” according to its website. The classic Mexican menu of burritos, nachos and tacos is occasionally supplemented by fancier items like shrimp and lobster.
“Gourmet is stuff that we kind of dream up: different sauces, different recipes, using our imagination and palate to dictate different recipes,” Nickols said.
His inspiration comes from the recipes for meats and marinades from his mother’s side of the family. He said his roots in California gave him a culinary advantage.
“Growing up in Southern California, it’s just eclectic. There are so many different ethnic foods” Nickols said.
Traveling and eating in new places, whether restaurants or backyard barbecues, sparks his culinary creativity, he said. Sometimes, it strikes in unlikely places.
“Inspiration for a couple of good recipes came from tailgating at a Raiders game in Oakland this last year. There was a short rib recipe this guy had, and he shared the ingredients and procedure very freely,” Nickols said.
His food-inspired adventures have taken him across the United States and into Central and South America.
“Food, in my opinion, isn’t a book or something you read. It’s more a feeling and places, geographical locations,” he said.
His favorite destination is Curacao, a Caribbean island near Venezuela. He said he admires the island’s slices of African, Dutch and Latin American cultures, among others.
“You get to experience a lot of cultures, cuisines — all of it on one small island,” he said.
The hunt for fresh ingredients often takes him to the West Coast, where he spends about 10 days a year on a boat catching seafood for the truck. One of his frequent catches is mahi-mahi, which he adds to tacos.
Fishing is also a pastime Nickols does three or four days a week when the weather cooperates.
“If I’m blessed enough to catch a fish and let it go that day, it makes it all that much better,” he said.
Fishing also gives him and his son a chance to spend time together away from the food truck.
There’s truth to the cliche that working with family can be difficult, Donnie Nickols said, but he enjoys getting to regularly work with his dad.
“He’s my best friend.” he said. “I definitely don’t look at him as a boss. I did for a little bit, but I got over the hump.”
Chris Jones, an employee of Lilly’s Cantina for about nine months, said he prefers the relaxed environment of the food truck to the corporate kitchens he worked in for several years.
“It’s pretty laid-back, but we can still put out a lot of food,” Jones said.
George Nickols said that his favorite thing about operating a food truck is all the people he interacts with.
“We’re not that big of a crew. We laugh. We joke. We don’t have corporate meetings. We don’t have bosses that scream at one another. We listen to the radio. We look out for one another. It’s a family,” he said.