OXFORD – For most of his adult life, Ron Demers of Otisfield worked at his father’s business in Lewiston selling leather to manufacturers. He traveled the country, offering his product to everyone from luggage manufacturers to cowboys who performed in rodeos.
Nowadays, Demers is more known for the restaurant he runs out of a yellow 1973 camper that he keeps parked at 574 Main St. in Oxford. The restaurant, called Rocket Ron’s American Grill, features everything from red hot dogs to pulled pork and brisket.
In the seven years that Demers has operated the restaurant, he has built a sturdy customer base made up of locals and people who live in Maine during the summer.
“I’m lucky to have such a good community here on Route 26,” Demers said.
Today, the 63-year-old skier and former all-American swimmer talks about leather, brisket and his love of cooking.
What did you do before opening Rocket Ron’s American Grill? For 28 years, I worked out of Lewiston at my dad’s leather business. My father owned a leather company selling leather to manufacturers, so I traveled the entire country selling leather to the shoe, motorcycle and upholstery industries.
Before I worked with my father, I was working at the ACME Boot Company in Kansas City, and my dad, who had been running his business for about a year, said he would either have to hire somebody to help him or I could move back to Maine and help him. I packed up everything in my 24-foot trailer, including my two horses, and drove back to Maine.
We had a warehouse on Lisbon Street in Lewiston at the Pepperell Mill where we stocked about a half-million square feet of leather and shipped it all around the world. We had a lot of crafters from New England stopping by to see what we had. I also traveled a lot to different upholstery or luggage shows, basically anywhere I could sell leather.
The cowboys ended up becoming our biggest business though. If you watch rodeos and see the metallic leather and fringes they wear to catch the judges eye, that’s what I was selling.
What prompted you to move into the food business? I’ve always loved cooking. My mother and grandmother taught me, and during my travels across the U.S. I ate food out of Texas, Denver, Wyoming, Seattle and other places. I’d come home and try to recreate it.
Maine has this nice little thing called lobsters, and people don’t mind bartering for lobsters. I’d send people I met across the country lobsters, and they’d send me elk, antelope or Alaskan king crab in return.
I learned how to cook brisket and pulled pork in Texas and Wyoming. We’d go into little towns, like something out of a Western, and it was just barbecue up and down the street. We’d go out back and see four or five gentlemen with bloodshot eyes in a room filled with smoke, taking care of the smokers.
The biggest reason I wanted to get into making food was that I like cooking for people. People have always enjoyed my cooking, whether at Labor Day parties or other things, and I like to see the enjoyment they get from eating my food.
How long has the grill been open? The business is about seven years old, and I’ve had the truck for six years now. Before the yellow truck I use now, I used a small hot dog cart that I bought in front of Tractor Supply.
One of my customers used to own the truck that I cook out of now. It was used as a camper when she owned it, and one day, she said, “Why don’t you buy the camper?” I asked her how much she wanted for it and she said $500.
I ended up buying it, turned around and spent another $7,000 installing the stainless steel and getting it into shape to cook food out of. It’s a 1973 and only has 68,000 miles on it. I take it out on the road once and a while to open at different places.
What sorts of food do you sell at Rocket Ron’s? We do chili, brisket and pulled pork. We used to just be hot dogs and hamburgers. People pull up thinking its just a hot dog or hamburger place and don’t realize everything I have.
I haven’t raised prices much. Had to go up to $2 for hot dog, which killed me, but everything else has been solid.
The snowbirds, when I first open up in the spring, first thing they order is a red hot dog and a Moxie. They don’t have that stuff when they go to Florida.
Are there any changes you’d like to make to the business, if you had the chance? There’s a truck I’ve had my eye on that’s a few years newer than the one I have and about the same size. I’m thinking about buying it, but some days, I’m not sure. It’s already pretty busy with just one truck. I’m here from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but there’s hours of work before and after I open. I mean, it takes 12 or more hours to smoke the meat I sell, but to do a good brisket, that’s how long it takes.
If I do buy the truck, I might make it a dessert truck. I think a truck of just cold stuff might be cool.
Otherwise, I like things how they are. I just hired a part-time worker for the first time. I had been looking for one all summer, and a friend of mine’s daughter came here to buy food for herself and her mother. She said that she’d work for me, so she usually works on Mondays and Tuesdays, while I’m here Wednesday through Sunday.
Where does the name “Rocket Ron” come from? “Rocket” is a nickname I’ve had since college, and nobody knows why. My kids keep asking me why, and I say, “I don’t know.” My leather guys started calling me “Rocket.” The nickname just ended up sticking.
What’s your life like outside of the truck, when you’re not “Rocket Ron”? I have three great kids and two grandkids. I love them all. My kids have all done really well.
In the winter, I’m a race official at Sunday River. I’ve been a ski instructor up there too, but primarily, I’m a race official. I pretty much ski all winter.
I’m also a three-time all-American swimmer. I was doing triathlons for a while, and I’d always do the swimming portion.
I have an old farmhouse in Otisfield, and I really love it out there. I’ve been all over the country, but I bought that house because I wanted to have a place that would be nice to come home to and relax.