On Feb. 1, 1991, Lizanne "Lizzie" Searing, a 27-year-old newlywed, set up her hot dog cart for the first time on the University of Connecticut's Storrs campus and waited for customers in the frigid weather. By day's end, braving the winter elements, she was excited to have made about $100.
Twenty-five years later, Searing is still feeding UConn students, faculty, staff, visitors and construction workers five days a week. The cart is bigger – and enclosed – with enough space for a flattop grill and counters for sandwich preparation. The menu is more expansive, with international flair inspired by her travels. She's mastered Facebook in recent years as a way to post her daily specials. But it's the same Lizzie of Lizzie's Curbside, who greets the majority of her customers by name, remembers details of their lives and offers warm smiles alongside her scratch-made comfort food.
She's been around long enough that she's actually served generations. "People that were here 25 years ago, that I met 25 years ago … now I feed their kids," she said.
Searing grew up in the Miami area and moved north in her early 20s, when she was working in the hotel industry. In Connecticut, she worked for a gourmet market in Rocky Hill and then in catering at the Hartford Civic Center. A chef at the venue told her "she'd make a killing" if she opened the cart on campus, she said. Now, her menu is extensive enough that hot dogs are just a small percentage of her sales.
Despite the January chill, a steady flow of customers stopped by the cart, parked in its designated spot between Arjona and Monteith Halls during lunch hours on a recent Wednesday.
"We missed you," called out one woman, happy to see Searing after her monthlong winter break between semesters. Lizzie's employee Courtney Sevarino took orders, made change and wrapped sandwiches as Searing cracked eggs on the grill, filled paper coffee cups and ladled creamy Cajun corn chowder into soup containers.
Each day, Lizzie's offers two soups, two specials and a pasta salad in addition to her regular menu of sandwiches and burgers. Vegetarian and vegan options are always available, as more and more customers are requesting them. A recent sandwich special, The Artichoke Thing, featured a scoop of scratch-made artichoke spread served on warm grilled pita with lettuce and tomato and wrapped like a gyro.
But just as many customers ordered the Cuban, with roast pork, ham, mustard, Swiss and pickles on authentic bread purchased from a Cuban bakery. (Sandwiches are $4 to $8; specials are $7; soups and pasta salads are $3 to $6.)
Searing often takes inspiration from food magazines for new special ideas, whipping up hearty braised short rib over smashed potatoes and a spicy Thai vegetable soup for another cold day. A Jamaican jerk-spiced corned beef Reuben was in the works as well.
Egg sandwiches, available at all times, are favorites among students, like a massive Mighty Mouth concoction, loaded with egg, cheese, bacon, ham and sausage on an everything bagel. It's popular among athletes, Searing said. "Some of them can take down two."
Customers often ask to add Lizzie's infamous "hellish relish," a fiery blend of peppers and onions.
The 'Shroom sandwich is one of Lizzie's top sellers, with egg, Swiss, fresh mushrooms and her own dill scallion mayonnaise.
"It only takes one 'Shroom to hook a freshman," she said, adding that she'll make samples and cut them into pieces to offer to nervous-looking new students who walk by the cart during the first week of the semester.
Desiree "Rey" Szydlo stopped by during lunch for her second 'Shroom of the day. "I have at least three of these every week," said the second-semester junior, who's majoring in psychology and biophysics.
Searing said that seniors often visit the cart for a meal as part of a pregraduation bucket list if they haven't tried Lizzie's earlier in their college career. "And then they're [mad] that they didn't have it sooner," she said, laughing.
Off-campus, Searing runs a busy Coventry-based operation, Lizzie's Catering, which services weddings and special events. In the summer, she's a permanent vendor at the Coventry Farmers Market, which returns in 2016 under new leadership. She's a guest vendor at the market's winter version at the town's high school, held Sunday mornings through the end of March.
Searing said she couldn't have predicted how trendy and popular food trucks would become nearly two decades after her first foray into mobile vending. In the fall of 2015, the university's dining services department introduced its own campus-run food trucks, serving tacos, sandwiches and UConn Dairy Bar ice cream. She said she thinks the new trucks have made people more aware of her own business. "[Students] have come and said, 'Are you new here?' And I say, 'I've been here since before you were born.'"
In the past 25 years at UConn, Searing has become a fixture in customers' lives. She and Sevarino see regulars so frequently that they can tell just by a change in demeanor if something's wrong or if they're feeling down, she said.
She's shipped her sauces to customers experiencing cravings while they're out of state, sent care packages to a student battling cancer and is about to cater a wedding for alumni who met and fell in love on campus. To be part of 25 years of people's lives "means everything to me," she said.
"People will come back and say, 'That was amazing,' or 'That was the best sandwich,' or 'Thank you for your advice,'" she said. "It's very one-on-one, it's very personable. It's gratification, rewarding, every day in some way."
Lizzie's Curbside parks on the University of Connecticut's Storrs campus on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Information and catering services: 860-742-3221, lizziescurbside.com, facebook.com/lizziescurbsidecuisine.