How a stolen secret family recipe put Bay Area's Roli Roti on the map

Thomas Odermatt at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.
Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Photo of Susana Guerrero

On any given Saturday, a throng of early birds slip on their comfy sneakers, grab a tote and head to San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market where dozens of vendors await. Curious customers mosey over to food stands to find a mix of mouthwatering dishes, including the glistening rotisserie chicken served at Roli Roti.

At the Roli Roti food truck, short for rolling rotisserie, customers are entranced once they catch dozens of roasted chickens slowly spinning on a rotisserie skewer. The built-in oven grills the birds alongside juicy pork tenderloin, while fingerling potatoes roast on a lower tray to absorb all the drippings. It’s the type of comfort food that has made Roli Roti a fixture at Bay Area farmers markets for the past 20 years.??

Founder Thomas Odermatt said that his fleet of six Roli Roti food trucks sells more than 3,000 roasted birds a week across 35 Bay Area farmers market events. Roli Roti’s other popular menu item, the porchetta sandwich, can sell upward of 800 sandwiches at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market alone.

A porchetta sandwich at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.

A porchetta sandwich at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

“We still sell more chickens, but when we talk about Roli Roti, people know about the sandwich,” Odermatt said. “The porchetta is a butcher’s masterpiece.”??

‘Let the fire do its magic’

With its mix of crispy to tender pork meat, the porchetta sandwich is served with onion marmalade and peppery arugula on an Acme roll that has been generously soaked in savory pork renderings. The $11.50 sandwich has been a showstopper at Roli Roti for years, but the technique behind creating whole porchetta rolls is one that takes hours of preparation.???

“You need skills to make a good porchetta, both from an assembly and cooking standpoint,” Odermatt said. “That’s my comfort zone. I'm very comfortable making that product.”

Thomas Odermatt assembing a porchetta sandwich at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Thomas Odermatt assembing a porchetta sandwich at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Porchetta being sliced at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Porchetta being sliced at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Staff assembling a porchetta sandwich at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Staff assembling a porchetta sandwich at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Thomas Odermatt at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Thomas Odermatt at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
(Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE)

A crew of five butchers at Roli Roti help prepare nearly 24 whole porchetta rolls to create those 800 sandwiches that usually sell at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. It all starts with Berkshire pork. Odermatt shared that he fancies the quality pork, known for its juiciness and marbling, specifically because of its meat-to-fat ratio.?

The talented butchers at Roli Roti remove the bones from the pork loins, carve the meat, season with fresh herbs and roll the pork into a tight cylinder. It’s an overall process that takes about 45 minutes from start to finish. After a 24-hour rest period that helps develop rich flavors, the pork rolls are ready to roast slowly for up to four hours before they’re transformed into decadent sandwiches.???

“It needs patience,” Odermatt said. “You need to not rush and let the fire do its magic.”

Roli Roti nearly ended before it even started

The launch of Roli Roti couldn’t have been more chaotic.?

After securing enough money from friends and family to buy his first food truck, Odermatt was ready to share his traditionally European cooking methods with the Bay Area.?

The rotisserie at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.

The rotisserie at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Roli Roti had only been in service for about three weeks when a major obstacle nearly derailed Odermatt’s entire business. Odermatt’s food truck was stolen from a parking lot in Emeryville just days before an event at San Jose’s Santana Row. To make matters worse, a copy of his secret family recipe for rotisserie chicken was left inside the truck.

“It was a tough moment for me because I didn't have the financial backing to just shake it off,” Odermatt said. “I thought that I had lost what I worked on for a year and a half. And at that moment, I didn't know what was going to happen.”??

Odermatt thinks that local news coverage helped spread the word about the theft and helped find his food truck. A day after it went missing, the truck, now vandalized, was found near a highway in Richmond. Whoever stole the truck also snatched 10 roasted chickens, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. (SFGATE and the San Francisco Chronicle are both owned by Hearst but operate independently of one another.) Unfortunately, the copy of Odermatt’s secret family recipe was never recovered.

Rotisserie chicken at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.

Rotisserie chicken at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

The snafus could have ended Roli Roti, but it didn’t deter Odermatt. He admits that it was a major bump in the road, especially since the damaged food truck wasn’t in any driving condition, but he was fortunate that the ovens still worked. Determined to make the Santana Row event, Odermatt cleaned the truck and loaded Roli Roti onto a flatbed to San Jose. It was all worth it when a crowd of 30 guests showed up to support Roli Roti and order rotisserie chicken, he said.?

“I would say retrospectively that [the theft] probably put me on the map,” Odermatt shared with laughter. “The recipe was inside the truck, but I haven't seen [anyone] floating around the same recipe yet. That was maybe the biggest luck.”?

The son of a butcher?

Years before Roli Roti opened in 2002, Odermatt spent his formative years mastering the art of butchering at his parents’ butcher shop on a farm in Hombrechtikon, Switzerland. Odermatt grew up in a household with eight brothers and sisters who learned the value of hard work at a young age. When he was four years old, he recalls standing on a stepping stool so that he could reach a cutting board and help his father carve meat off the bones.

Thomas Odermatt slicing porchetta at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.

Thomas Odermatt slicing porchetta at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

“My first childhood memory was with a knife,” Odermatt said. “It was a good childhood but a little hard because we had to go to school and had to help at the family business. Thinking back, I don't think it hurt me. It developed me, and I think that's the beauty behind it.”

Odermatt said his father was an exceptional sausage maker who instilled in him the craft of making quality dishes made from simple ingredients. The rotisserie chicken at Roli Roti happens to be made from that guarded family recipe used at the family butcher shop.?

As he grew older, Odermatt continued to cultivate a skill set for butchering while also working at a bakery (separate from the family business) where he sourced ingredients. When his job began requiring frequent trips throughout Europe, Odermatt realized that he needed to improve his English communication skills to excel at the gig. And that’s how Odermatt wound up in the Bay Area in the early aughts, when he enrolled in a three-month course at UC Berkeley.?

The courses started off fair enough, but Odermatt’s life trajectory changed when he grew bored with his English lessons. He eventually found himself wandering through campus and snuck into a class at Haas School of Business, where he listened to an entrepreneurship lecture. Through some persuasion, Odermatt convinced the instructor to let Odermatt create a business proposal for his class — under the condition that Odermatt write something worth his while.?

Thomas Odermatt handing a porchetta sandwich to a customer at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Thomas Odermatt handing a porchetta sandwich to a customer at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Porchetta at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Porchetta at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Bread at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Bread at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
(Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE)

When Odermatt began his first draft, he wrote a plan he thought would cater an American audience. But to his detriment, the instructor was hardly impressed and sent him back to the drawing board and encouraged him to “find your own space.”?

When his first plan was rejected, Odermatt said he took a moment to reflect. He thought about the family butcher shop in Switzerland and remembered how food truck vendors often bought rotisserie chickens from the store to sell on their own trucks. Odermatt was inspired about the idea of putting the food side of his family business on wheels, and thus presented his initial concept for Roli Roti. The instructor loved the business plan so much that he convinced Odermatt to cancel his flight back home and open his food truck empire.???

'I'm not a chef, I'm a farmer'

When Odermatt looks back at Roli Roti’s lasting tenure, he’s pleased with the unwavering stability his food trucks have provided over the years. It’s part of the reason he’s not interested in running a restaurant — again.?

Back in 2008, Odermatt debuted his first restaurant Rotisario, inside Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, which focused on chicken but also served steak frites and meatloaf, among other dishes. The restaurant shuttered two years later. Odermatt said that he takes full ownership of his unsuccessful restaurant venture, sharing that he wasn’t in it as a restaurateur.

Thomas Odermatt at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.

Thomas Odermatt at the Roli Roti food truck at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

“Do I think this model works for the restaurant? I think so, but it’s not me,” Odermatt said. “I never wanted to do anything less than restaurant quality food … but I'm not a chef, I'm a farmer.”???

Odermatt added that he believes it’s much easier to foster a community at farmers market events compared with his experience of running a brick-and-mortar. He likes that his longtime customers have become friendly faces he looks forward to seeing at the Roli Roti.?

Looking ahead, he said he hopes to continue to expand the other half of Roli Roti with his retail items, like bone broths, sous vide and roasted potatoes sold at Costco, Whole 竞技宝首页s and other major grocery stores. As far as the food trucks go, they will remain unchanged.??

“I'm a farmer by trade but I grew up in a traditional butcher shop,” Odermatt said. “For me, the connection was the farmers market. It’s always been the farmers market and I never really changed the model.”

Roli Roti has multiple appearances at farmers markets throughout the Bay Area. Find them at a farmers market near you.?

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