New Jersey Food Journal

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Original Fat Darrell: An Interview with Darrell Butler

By Emily Maas and Alexa Ramos

In an exclusive interview, Darrell Butler, creator of the Fat Darrell, shares the origins of the popular sandwich, his unique fame, which includes signing the foreheads of drunk students, and his advice for current students.

The year was 1997. Butler was a sophomore, a journalism major, at Rutgers University. He was hungry and wanted a sandwich. What resulted, however, was not just any sandwich. Butler created what soon became the most popular Fat Sandwich at Rutgers, a grease truck meal of chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, French fries, marinara sauce, lettuce and tomato, all on a roll. He paid $4.50 for the first Fat Darrell. The sandwich now costs $6.

His creation has led to numerous promotional appearances and interviews – from ABC News and ESPN to "Elvis Duran & The Morning Show" and The New York Times. The Fat Darrell was named best sandwich in the nation in 2004 by Maxim magazine.

Today Butler is a personal fitness trainer in Johns Creek, Georgia.

NJFJ: Give us an idea of how you designed the Fat Darrell and a little bit about the origin of the story.

Darrell Butler: I had had a rough day at school. I got yelled at for being late for class. I overslept my first class and I was yelled at in another one because I didn’t have my work for it. So, it was a pretty stressful day and I was tired of doing the same things all the time.

I went for the trucks, where they used to be parked. I would get Fat Cats (the original and only Fat Sandwich before the Fat Darrell) every other day and I got sick of getting Fat Cats because I was having a crappy day and I didn’t want the same things anymore. The whole week I was craving chicken fingers. I was craving mozzarella sticks. I was craving fries. But when I looked at the menu, I didn’t have 12 bucks or whatever it was. The Fat Cat was $4.50. So, I figured if I went to my favorite truck and asked them to make me something like a Fat Cat, that they might charge me $4.50 instead of charging me 12 bucks for the stuff I wanted. I walked up, read off the ingredients, and they went for it.

So I started calling out stuff. I definitely wanted chicken fingers. I wanted the French fries. I wanted the mozzarella sticks and I needed something to glue it together, which is when I said marinara sauce. I don’t know why, but I added lettuce and tomato, which everyone picks off now because I guess it’s too healthy for everybody. Then, the girl in line behind me, as I was just standing there eating it, thought it sounded like a good idea. So then she ordered it. Her boyfriend ordered it. Then the guy behind them ordered it. Everybody in line ordered it and it became the top selling food the next day.

That night, everyone was calling me “Fat Darrell.” I was like, high-fiving people. All six trucks asked me to add it to their menu, so they made it an official menu item. They painted the name on. They made these cheesy posters where I’m holding the sandwich.

The next day, I got on the bus to go to class and I got a standing ovation from like, half the bus. I walked into my next class and the same teacher who was yelling at me the day before was high-fiving me. It was a pretty big deal, right out of the gate.

NJFJ: What year were you when all this began?

DB: It was the second semester of my sophomore year.

NJFJ: Wow, so you had a solid two years to live through that legacy.

DB: I actually ended up finishing my third year, but I still lived there during what would have been my fourth year. I didn’t charge the trucks anything for the sales, even though they are making a lot of money off of me, but they used to bring me free food all the time.
At Rutgers with host Adam Richman at thetaping of an episode of "Man v. Food," 
which aired on the Travel Channel in 2010.
NJFJ: Now that you look back on it, are there any ingredients you wish you added?

DB: I kind of like that it was like a chicken parm on a sandwich, so I like the one I came up with. Some of the creations that came after it though – I’m pretty impressed with some of the stuff that they’ve done. After I made mine, kids saw my face on the side of the truck and they saw the reactions I was getting outside in parties, and a lot of people saw this attention and they wanted the same attention. I just did it for the free food, but other people had other motives. There were some cool combinations but I still like mine.

NJFJ: Is your favorite Fat Sandwich still the Fat Darrell, or is there any other one that you think you might like more than your own?

DB: Well, the original Fat Cat with bacon is still a staple. It became really hard to order it after I made mine because my face was on the truck. People wanted to hear me say, “A Fat me,” or a “Fat Darrell.” People would stare at me anytime I would order something. So, it got a little tricky ordering anything else. I like other things on the menu. Sometimes I’ll get a cheesesteak, or a Fat Cat, but I used to have to whisper it to the guys or I’d actually get on the truck and make it myself.

NJFJ: When this happened, you were getting a lot of on-campus publicity. Did it heavily impact your life at Rutgers from being here as a freshman and living every day as a normal Rutgers student? What were some of the big differences and impacts that you personally went through after being known for the Fat Darrell?

DB: Well, I was a nutcase freshman year too. I had a big mouth, and I still do have a big mouth. I’ve always been interested in TV and media. I had a big mouth so a lot of people knew me freshman year, but when your face is on all the trucks – and I used to hang out there all the time anyway because it used to be a big party area – the difference after was that I wasn’t just hanging out there anymore, I was signing drunk people’s foreheads and stuff.

NJFJ: So during your Rutgers career you were a journalism major. Now, after college you’re in the fitness world. Do they go hand in hand for you or did you realize, ‘Well, journalism’s great, but my passion is in fitness’? What happened with that switch?

“It doesn’t have to be all broccoli and tree bark all day, but it can’t be Fat Darrells and Whoppers all day either.”
DB: I did journalism and psychology, but I was also doing acting and video stuff. My goals are acting, media, hosting and stuff like that. So for broadcast, I use a lot of my TV appearances. I write for I still do a lot of writing and I have had journalism jobs, but it’s just not my full-time passion. I don’t really want to be a broadcaster; I’d rather host the show. Long term, I could still do that, but with my fitness stuff – I worked out a lot anyway. You can’t eat Fat Cats everyday and not work out. So, I always worked out. People used to come up to me inside of Werblin Gym. They’d go up and ask me questions instead of asking the trainers.

In what would have been my fourth year, I got a personal trainer certification also. I figured I could always use it for something. If nothing else, it was just something cool to have. I ended up doing pretty well in that, so it kind of goes hand-in-hand. My ultimate end game is to expand the sandwich and to have a TV show and do a bunch of things like that, but the training is a steady thing to do. I don’t want everybody to be 400 pounds thinking they can eat Fat Darrells everyday; people have to balance stuff out. So, the balance is actually going to come in handy.

NJFJ: What do the people you work with today think about the legacy you have created at Rutgers and the Fat Darrell?

DB: The biggest question I get is if I still eat them. I mean, I eat other things but yeah, I do. A lot of people don’t understand it doesn’t have to be all broccoli and tree bark all day, but it can’t be Fat Darrells and Whoppers all day either. There has to be some type of balance. It actually helps the discussion because I’ve shown people that you can be a real person and still have a low body-fat percentage and be in shape. I don’t necessarily lead with that information, because I’m not the type to really brag about what I do, but there’s been a couple times where the TV’s been on and all of the sudden I’m on the TV.  That kind of opens up the conversation.

NJFJ: It must have been really cool to do all those rounds at "Good Morning America" (2004) and "Man v. Food" (2010) wanting to be a host and wanting to be on television. What was the coolest thing you got to do after creating the Fat Darrell to promote it?
Butler on the set of CBS WLNY’s "Live from
the Couch" with hosts Lisa Kerneyand John Elliott in September 2012.
DB: Getting picked up in a limo for "Good Morning America" was pretty cool. "The Elvis Duran & The Morning Show" was cool. I’ve always listened to them, and doing the Paula Deen show, that was a big deal too.

NJFJ: Are you familiar with the new locations and rules of the Grease Trucks and how do you feel about it as an alumnus?

DB: I think it’s good and bad at the same time. Before I went to Rutgers, they used to be all around the campus anyway. Eventually, they all parked in one lot and that was the experience that I had. It was really cool being in that lot, but now I think it opens it up a lot for people who don’t live on College Ave. or don’t go to that one area. You’ll never have that experience of having all of them in one spot, though. It was chaos out there, but it was good. Hopefully the college will be more accepting of the trucks, I think the outcry that happened after they really tried to get rid of them completely showed a lot of how much they mean to the campus. I’m not disrespecting Rutgers administration in any way, but they should stop fighting against the trucks and start embracing them because they are a huge part of the campus. 

NJFJ: Do you have full control of the Fat Darrell name and branding?

DB: The name is registered to me. Fat Darrell LLC owns the “Fat Darrell Sandwich” name. With all the TV appearances and magazines, it makes more sense to have someone help. Anyone outside of Rutgers has to pay for the sandwich. There’s a place near Temple University (Lincoln Financial Field, $8.95) that sells it, there’s another near West Virginia University (SandwichU, $7.99) that sells it as well. My goal is to expand to other spots, but I never plan to charge Rutgers for selling the sandwich unless it’s some location that I open, for example. If you open a shop at Rutgers, good luck, make some money, but if it’s outside of Rutgers then you would have to go through me.

NJFJ: What we found most interesting about your time at Rutgers was that you stumbled onto this opportunity unknowingly and it was just because you went for it and spoke up. It was something so simple, that you just wanted a sandwich. You did something so small with such a huge effect and impact on your life. What type of advice would you give Rutgers students today who are looking to do something to change their lives the way you did?

DB: Just ask for things. Just ask, literally. You never know how easy something can be if you just ask and make it happen. In hindsight, I would also take advantage of the opportunities that Rutgers has to offer. I’m taking advantage of the fact that I made the sandwich, but realistically, instead of rushing out my third year, being 20 when I graduated, I probably should of stayed that last year. Having that student ID is a big deal. You have access to so many places, and you guys as students can go anywhere on campus. Just go for stuff that you want. You never know what small moment could lead to something huge. I’ve already opened a lot of doors with this sandwich. The Fat Darrell gets a lot of places that Darrell Butler can’t get into. So definitely, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for something and don’t overlook the small things. They get bigger a lot of times.

Emily Maas is a senior at Rutgers University where she majors in journalism & media studies and English.

Alexa Ramos is a junior majoring in Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. Although her passion is sports and broadcasting, Ramos is extremely interested in the world of food writing and hoping to expand her knowledge in the culture of cuisine.