Will Mr. Smith go to Washington? That’s Marvin Smith, who is the Ollie behind Ollie’s Trolley, the West End landmark dining car. Ollie has catered five of soon-to-be-president-elect Obama’s campaign events and has pictures to prove it. There are posters of Marvin proudly posing with each of the Obamas, Barack and Michelle, on every window of the trolley.
I asked Marvin if he thought he’d accept a job as the next White House chef.
“No, I like my catering business right here in Cincinnati,” he said. “But I wouldn’t mind catering in Washington a few times, either!”
There are just a few tables outside Ollie’s Trolley where you can rest and take in the encompassing effect of ribs smoking on the grill and beer brewing next door at Samuel Adams. Not a bad combo for an autumn afternoon! Inside, there’s just enough room to move through the line and decide between rib tips and a burger. I started with an Ollie Burger years ago, and I was hooked. That happens to be Marvin’s suggestion as well.
“An Ollie Burger is the best way to taste the Ollie seasoning, and learn if you like it,” Marvin explains with too much humility. “People think I’m a good cook. Well, it’s not that I can cook — it’s the seasoning!”
It’s not really Cajun seasoning. It’s milder than that. But the spice mix on Ollie’s burgers, his fries and even his famous deep-fried turkey make them distinctive dishes. The trolley is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so you can get your seasoning fix on everything from grits and eggs to a pork chop.
I thought I’d eaten my way through most of Ollie’s menu, but at a recent Ollie-catered event, I had the deep-fried turkey served “pulled” style — like pulled pork.
It was incredible: rich, smoky, spicy and delicious. I am not a big turkey fan, but shredding and stirring the meat moistens it and makes the most of the flavor. According to Marvin, “Lots of guys come in for lunch just to get the turkey tips. It sure beats a dry old turkey sandwich.” Truth.
Although the pulled turkey was the highlight, there are many star dishes at an Ollie feast. Marvin and his crew arrive, decked out in chef’s coats and toques, and fully equipped with a big barbecue grill, a professional deep fryer and an array of sterno trays. Forget about “carving stations!” When you’ve got a caterer who is filling platters with chicken wings and drumsticks fresh out of the fryer, that’s a crowd pleaser.
The guests heaped their plates high with meaty barbecued ribs, spicy pulled pork, rib tips and fresh, hot French fries. There were baskets of cornbread, delicious collard greens and the creamiest, most decadent macaroni and cheese you’ve ever tasted. Trays of iced brownies and slices of glazed lemon pound cake, calling to you from a glass cake stand, followed all that.
Although the trolley is always busy, catering is Marvin’s main business. He’s been doing it since 1993 and offers menus that include church-supper favorites like lasagna and meatloaf right up to steamship rounds of beef and whole pig roasts.
“I don’t usually recommend leaving the pig’s head on when we serve,” he cautions. “It’s not for the squeamish.”
And Ollie’s staff? Friendly and professional to the last. Marvin explains that he tries to instill in his people a sense of how valuable work is, and how important it is to have a good work ethic — because good jobs are hard to find. Even with service jobs, he says, you have to value your work.
“This is a good business,” he says. “It allowed me to put my daughter through school, and now she’s a success. A cosmetician for Lanc�me — and she was such a tomboy growing up!” he explains with not just a little pride.
Marvin’s contribution to the West End community is not insignificant. For 15 years, the trolley has been an anchor, a stable element in the neighborhood. Signs inside urge patrons to register to vote and to attend community forums. There are still a lot of photos of famous patrons around the place, but right now it looks
like the dining car satellite of the Obama headquarters.
Marvin hesitates when I ask him if he sees himself as a community activist.
“No, but I’m definitely active,” he says. “There’s an energy I bring to everything I do, and an enthusiasm. I think that’s how I stay in business.”
Well, maybe that, some great grilling and some secret seasoning. Now if only we can taste some of that spice mix at the Obama inauguration gala! That’s a change anybody can believe in.
OLLIE’S TROLLEY is located at 1601 Central Ave. in the West End.