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Spotlight Iowa City: Life in the grilled-cheese lane

BY LAUREN MILLS | NOVEMBER 16, 2009 7:22 AM

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Jill Hoffman is full of stories.

There’s the woman who stuffed a bag of tortillas down her dress, and then there’s the guy who threw a propane tank through the window of Brothers Bar & Grill, and one time, there was even …

“The wig fight,” Hoffman, 24, said, laughing and reminiscing with fellow Marco’s Grilled Cheese worker Jessica Anderson, 23, before the bar-closing rush on Nov. 14.

“These girls got into this huge fight over there,” Hoffman said, pointing to the square behind the stand. “They ripped off their wigs. There was a wedding party that came out of the Sheraton and were cheering them on.”

“Some of the groomsmen got hold of the wigs and waved them around,” Anderson said.

Hoffman, a red-head who majored in history at the UI, joined the Marco’s staff in 2007.

“I just needed a job,” she said. “I talked to the manager, and he was like, ‘Can you start right now?’ ”

She started that night. While the job may not be glamorous — especially sitting outside during an Iowa winter and flipping hundreds of sandwiches on a busy night — it does have some social reverbrations.

“Whenever I go out, people are always like, ‘Hey, I know you from somewhere,’ ” Hoffman said. “And I’m like, ‘Um … from the grilled-cheese stand.’ ”

The smell of grilled cheese draws customers to the stand, which has become an Iowa City culinary landmark since it opened on Cinco de Mayo in 2000. But Hoffman said she doesn’t eat the grilled cheese anymore.

“Just the smell of it is no longer appealing,” Hoffman said, pulling the neck of her black fleece to her nose and taking an experimental sniff. “I have a pile of clothes that smell like Marco’s. They sit on the other side of the room so they don’t contaminate my closet.”

Hoffman is one of roughly 12 who serve up the grilled delicacies.

“Jill’s been here forever so she always knows what she is doing,” said Seth Cohen, a UI student in electric engineering who works at the nearby sister stand, George’s Best Gyros. “She is really good at eliciting tips.”

Conversing with sometimes soused customers who emerge from the bars is a part of the job description. Some come to the stand and attempt to order “quesadilla con pollo” en Español.

“But the most common is, ‘Dang it, Napoleon, make us a dang quesadilla,’ ” Hoffman said, mimicking the line from Napoleon Dynamite while Anderson rolled her eyes toward the green-and-yellow striped awning.

One of the mysteries surrounding the stand is the “secret ingredient.”

“It’s the garlic in the butter,” a girl dressed in Hawkeye gear told her friend as she ordered a sandwich.

“It’s crack,” Anderson joked back.

Hoffman had a different perspective.

“I think it is the grill,” she said looking down at it as Anderson slapped butter on slices of bread and loaded them onto the sputtering surface seasoned by hundreds of previous orders.

The steady sounds of the bass beat to “Back in Black” emerged from Brothers. A group sang the “12 Days of Christmas,” while they waited to enter 3rd Base. And in the stand, Hoffman and Anderson pulled up “Fancy” by Reba McEntire, and sang along, dancing beneath red chili pepper lights hanging from the awning.


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