By Diana Higgins
Justin Stout sat in the shade in his gray t-shirt, relaxing with his hands folded in his black apron. The smell of his teriyaki lunch plate mixed in the air with the smell of cheesy pasta from the nearby food cart. The Cranberries’ “Linger” played on the radio while he finished his lunch and smiled at finally having a break to take it easy after a busy few weeks.
Stout, 34, moved to Eugene from Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas with his brother Jeff in July, 2009. He opened The Lasagna Cart on Hwy 99 in 2010 and is the owner and sole employee. He got the idea for a lasagna food cart after searching for affordable Italian restaurants using an iPhone app .
“The only thing that came up over here was Papa John’s,” Stout says.
He knew the people of the Trainsong neighborhood needed more options, and decided to be the one to remedy the situation. After lots of experimenting and somewhere between six and ten different recipes, Stout now sells both meat and vegetarian lasagna with several sauce options, including a rich and creamy Alfredo, as well as beverages and sweet treats for dessert.
“I really like the cart thing. I like working alone. I like working for myself,” Stout says.
Stout chose Oregon after a long search for the perfect place to settle down. He and Jeff traveled all over trying to find what they thought was the best place in North America.
“Every time we came to Oregon, we just felt a real peace,” Stout says. Originally the brothers wanted to live on the beach, but Oregon’s coastal towns were too small. Portland, on the other hand, was too big. After visiting Eugene they decided it would be the perfect place to live, with access to the beach and the hot springs, lots of parks and trees, and a great Saturday market.
“When we got here it was sort of a culture shock, but in such a good way,” Stout says, comparing the outdoorsy attitude of Eugene to the air condition-oriented lifestyle of his Texas hometown. He says he does not plan on leaving Oregon any time soon, and even wants to build a self-sustaining home complete with a tire wall and solar toilet. His hands illustrate everything he says, drawing invisible versions of his words and gesturing to emphasize his excitement.
The Lasagna Cart is located on a busy street cluttered with businesses and industrial companies. Traffic moves by quickly, and not a lot of people walk by. The business phone rings a few times and Stout texts on his white-cased iPhone frequently. He has a wooden wind chime and two metal ones hanging together near the cart, all of which clink against each other each time a breeze rolls through.
Stout’s cart used to be the Ubon Thai Kitchen cart, which now is located across the parking lot. The sides are red, with green accents and letters to represent Italy. The side with the ordering window, however, still reflects the cart’s Thai days. It is yellow, with the original owner’s paintings of ducks in Thai hats eating Thai food. Stout said he had to leave it; the art was too well done to destroy completely.
Naming the cart was easy. Stout mentioned the name The Lasagna Cart to his mother, who exclaimed “Hey! TLC!” Stout smiles when he talks about his mom. The acronym sealed the deal, and thus The Lasagna Cart was named.
Stout works six days a week, and the seventh day is spent grocery shopping, doing laundry and getting things done that he needs for the next week. A lot of time and energy go in to running a food cart alone, but Stout makes it work.
“I sold my first full pan of lasagna,” Stout says, recalling the two days of work it took to make the full pan just right for the Mother’s Day order.
He says his biggest inspiration to cook is hunger. “When I was 12 years old I made my first pound cake,” Stout says. But cooking wasn’t always Stout’s life goal. Since he was younger he wanted to be a musician, rocking out to bands like Sound Garden and learning to play bass guitar. Stout wrings his hands together when talking about his rock star dream. He has a drum set assembled in the building right next to his food cart where he can play on breaks.
“My ultimate goal is just to be off the grid and live peacefully,” Stout says. He leans back in his chair and folds his arms behind his head, taking in the tranquil day.